Friday, December 09, 2011

On discipline...

These days, writers are supposed to be a brazen brand - masters of mobile and internet wizardry; and magicians of marketing!

It's easy for the time required for the craft of writing to be squeezed, and this has led me to consider the nature of 'discipline'. (And I don't mean perverse sexual practices!)

"Discipline" is a frequent topic of questions in interviews, as in that awful one: "It must take a lot of self-discipline to write a novel/be a writer..?".

Well, no, we tend to answer patiently... self-discipline is not an issue. If you really want to be a writer, actually you can't help it. In fact, you go crazy if you DON'T get the time to write.

Like, when unable to write for prolonged periods, I get to feel that I will start scraping the wallpaper off with my fingernails or yelling something deeply regrettable if I can't get back to it very soon.

OK, others might call it a form of mental illness, but, as anyone will know who has read biographies of many top entrepreneurs (like Steve Jobs), scientists or artists, this kind of obsessive-compulsive behaviour goes with the job description in many fields.

This is not to be considered weird! 

Now, I'm one of the lucky people who make most of their living from writing. I have to do several different kinds of writing to survive rather than just write fiction (my favourite form), and I feel that I've worked hard to be in this place.

Discipline as craft
Another meaning of the word 'discipline' is craft or skill.

For the past year, my work pattern has changed, involving a new discipline, and this has had an interesting effect on my writing.

Every weekday morning, I have to write an article, as soon as possible and usually within two hours, of about 700-1000 words, and post it on a web site.

This is an enforced discipline, but one that pays off well in terms of developing the discipline of the craft.

Typically, I have no idea before I start what the subject will be, and have to research it as I write it.

This type of journalism, for a specialist, largely business, audience, demands many qualities apart from accuracy and readability.

In particular, there is an instinct for what people want to read that no one else is providing, which can only come from knowing the field intimately.

There is also the kind of fluency that comes from being able to trust oneself that the process of writing at speed will result in something that isn't completely unintelligible and is of great interest to my readers.

This is a very different process from writing a novel, partly because it operates on a totally different timescale. It is topical, and so consumed, like a meal, within hours of preparation, after which it is likely to be forgotten; although one hopes that it will have greater influence, just as a top chef's creation may be talked about for long after it has disappeared.

The self-editing process is therefore different. When writing a novel, one can leave a draft for a few weeks so that, when re-reading it, one may see it afresh and notice errors and omissions that were obscured by the afterglow of creation.

Since adopting this new work pattern, and because I cannot expect my editor to spot my errors, I have developed new techniques to force myself to both edit as I write and to see my work freshly as if I had left it for weeks, even though it was only minutes. These techniques have fed into the novel-writing process.

I continually edit as I write, checking that I've said what I meant to say. I write in a text editor, not a word processor, so I can concentrate on the words alone, not be distracted by how they look.

I re-read and correct it, then copy and paste it into OpenOffice. I do the same there. Then I copy and paste that into TextEdit (I use a Mac) and repeat the process. Both of these have spell-checks that notice different words (OpenOffice doesn't check American spellings).

Each time I paste it into different software, it looks different, and my eye is forced to notice different things.

So I'll have read and re-read, continually correcting, this blog copy several times this way before posting it. Even so, I won't be surprised if someone spots a mistake!

There we have it: two types of discipline. One, that is about finding the time to write; the other, that is about the development of the craft.

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