Essential writing skills: the hidden key to writing

I’ve been posting for a few weeks now on the challenges facing authors. By far the biggest single challenge is the invisible one. The way we think.

Close-up of the former T&G Building (1936).
Imagine writing as a building. We visualise the outside – the finished result – but the design inside demands a LOT of work.

The problem is that we all think in simultaneous ideas – everything all at once, in effect. We think we’re being clear, as if material is written down in our minds – but it’s easy enough to show that it isn’t. How? Try writing the idea down.

If it was clear, like we perceive a conversation, you’d be able to blurt it out as fast as you could type, finished and complete. Sometimes – just sometimes – this happens. But not often.

The more usual process is one of iterations. First there’s the blank page, because you don’t know where to start. Then you get some phrases and sentences, but this one seems to work better there, or maybe there. And how does this fit in? And – and –

You get the picture. Even if you think you’re got a linear thread of ideas, the practical first expression of them reveals you don’t. That’s normal. It’s because we don’t think in written English. Some people don’t think in language at all – the ideas float in as shapes and patterns. But even the people who’re limited to words usually don’t have a written sequence in their minds.

What we are actually thinking of is the result of the writing – the emotional response, the intent and the aims of the material. It’s often expressed, mentally, in terms of phrases, words and ideas.  But not in the order it needs to be. Nor is it complete, though we often have the illusion of it being complete because our mind fills the blanks.

And that’s entirely normal. It’s how humans think.

You’ll guess from this that I’ve put a lot of thought into figuring out how humans think, in order to write better – and you’d be right.

If we understand this, we discover the key to writing – to writing fast, to writing well. And it begins, as I’ve trunked about relentlessly in this blog, with planning. Planning down to the last detail, if necessary – though often that isn’t necessary.

To plan effectively, though, you need to understand how that melange of ideas, phrases, notions and concepts gets honed, teased, combed and otherwise bashed into shape when being written down. How do we go from the one point to the other?

It’s not easy – but if you can master it, you’ll have mastered what’s needed to write swiftly, effectively and with quality.

More next week.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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7 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: the hidden key to writing

  1. Wonderful post!! Excellent insight and advice… as if we’d expect anything less from you ~wink. After reading your bang-on description of the idea-to-words process, I started to think about how similar the process is to dreaming. When we wake up we’re so sure we’ve gone through an epic linear experience, but when we try to describe the dream to someone it all ends up sounding like a muddle of disjointed emotional/sensory experiences – “seriously… you had to be there.”

    Maybe we writers need to be more appreciative of our abilities – however modest. Because if (and I’m sure even Freud would begrudgingly agree) there is literally nothing more painfully tedious than listening to someone’s dreams, then the ability to be able to script the dream-like musings of our minds into something ENGAGING ought to be given a bit more respect! Thanks for the ego-boost Matthew!

    1. Glad to have been of assistance! I think the whole creative process is best described as a dream, in many ways – our best ideas always come when we’re not quite awake, largely I think because our conscious mind doesn’t then deny the connections that we come up with and squash them before they can be expressed. The problem is remembering those ideas and accepting that, in that form, they have an untouchable perfection that we can’t fully perceive or describe in words. But we can aspire to try…and that’s what I’ve been thinking through in terms of the process of writing. More soon.

      I have to say – I don’t know that anybody else thinks about writing from this perspective!

  2. Just discovered Lisa Cron who offers an online course on writing fundamentals. I found it a great refresher but to be honest, not as practical as your blog posts. According to her website, her book, Wired for Story, argues that we are hard-wired to learn from story and thus, it is critical for writers to understand how we think, as your post indicates.

    One of the points she makes in her course is: “You have to see the difference between the story in your head and the one you write on the page.” For me, that has always been an issue, even in my essays, but as your post points out, it is key to all writing. Recognizing that not only saves time but the quality of the writing is amazing. I am still working on it but the recognition of it has made quite a difference.

    Really informative post and thank you, Matthew.

    1. Thank you – and I very much appreciate your kind thoughts! I am trying to explore the underlying mrchanics of writing – the intersection between the mind of the writer and the final expression. Understand that, and the rest should fall into place. In theory anyway…

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