Secrets of good writing: you hang a gun on the wall, you better use it


In a previous post I said that it is impossible to tell people how to write because doing that affects the outcome – the text – and deprives it from originality and creativity. It is however possible to come up with some general features that characterise good texts; this has interesting implications for the writing process and the focus of the writer.

This is the first post in a series setting out some common features of good texts. I got to appreciate these through practice and reflection; but they are not new. I just make them much more interesting and easy to remember and follow. And remember, good texts are structurally very similar irrespective of whether you are writing an essay, and academic article, a short story or a blog post.

I have come to realise that throughout my life I seamlessly slide from addiction to addiction occasionally interspersed with obsessions. Some of these are good. About three decades ago, for instance, I was completely obsessed by the theatre: I did acting, I read plays, I tried to write and direct plays, and I read books on the theory of theatre. If I were better looking I may have ended up in Hollywood not as a university professor.

More to the point, during the period of my ‘theatre obsession’ I came across a Russian guy called Constantin Stanislavski: an actor, director and theorist of theatre from the beginning of the 20th century. He stayed in the history of theatre for developing the ‘Stanislavski system’ which was the first comprehensive actor training system and it included ’emotional memory’ so that actors can experience the role.

How is this useful to writers? Well, it isn’t; it is just a background. What is useful though is that in one of his essays on theatre direction, Stanislavski said that a great production is one that is very ‘tightly’ conceived and where ‘everything plays’. In other words:

If you hang a gun on the wall in Act One, you better make sure that someone get shot with it in Act 3.

Translated for writing it means that all story lines/arguments have to be connected. This works two ways: making sure that something you mention on page three pops up in a big way on page 150 is important for both setting the scene and grounding the action. As a reader, I know that reading ‘messy’ text where story lines/arguments pop out continuously and are difficult to ‘ground’ into the rest, not only rob my pleasure of reading; these affect my understanding and the story/argument simply stops making sense.

We all know what readers do with texts that don’t make sense; yep, there is always the bin or the bottom draw.

As a writer, I had the opportunity to use this secret of good writing; interestingly it was in my academic writing. About a year ago I was completing a very large and highly visible project sponsored by the European Research Council known as EURECIA. Being the Principle Investigator on a project involving the absolutely top scholars in three different social sciences research fields was a treat; synthesising the reports on different issues that they submitted was an epic feat that could have turned into a disaster.

It didn’t; and it didn’t because I remembered good ol’ Stanislavski and his ‘rule of guns’. If you are interested in the result you can find it here: have a look, many were rather surprised that a text on developing methodologies to study the impact of research funders on the science system can be actually readable and easy to understand even by non-specialists.

Remembering the ‘rule of guns’, however, has the following implications for the writing process:

    • Start wide. This doesn’t mean that you have to generate loads of text though if this is how you work feel free to do so. What I did was to ‘write’ a flow of consciousness text that was about ten pages (2,500 – 3,000 words). My preference was to dictate it using Dragon Naturally Speaking (no I am not an affiliate…yet).
    • Use this text to come up with the initial structure. Very important; this is where you already will start linking ‘guns and action’ (in my case ‘methodology and empirics’ but…well, you get the drift). Always keep in mind that this structure is alive: it should be cared for (revisited), allowed to grow and develop, and carefully ‘socialised’ or given direction unobtrusively.
    • Forget about the whole thing. This sounds counterintuitive – if you want to ensure that all in the text fits you should keep the whole thing in mind – but many very practical and useful suggestions are like that. Point is: you can’t worry about everything at every point of time. Hence, when you start generating text you should forget about the rest and focus on the part of the structure you are addressing at the time. Complete a full draft as soon as possible.
    • Edit, edit, edit. When someone asked me how I know that an article of mine is ready for publication my answer was: ‘I know because it is version 12 to 16.’ And yes, I do re-writes for blog articles as well; particularly when I guest post.
    • Re-structure the text. Once I have a full body I go back and look at the structure again. With shorter texts it is easy to note what is not there, what ought to be there and what doesn’t need to be there by just reading the text and taking notes in traditional way (long hand). With longer texts (and the EURECIA report is over 200 pages) I use mind-mapping – it is very easy to put a lot of information on a page (okay, and A5 page) and see the gaps or the ‘frills’.
    • Get rid of everything that ‘hangs’. Be merciless in this; and I am very aware that this is painful and hard. Still, if you leave many ‘frills’ in your text you will be saving yourself the pain of tightening it up but your readers will suffer. I can promise you that.
    • Edit again. Decided to mention that because anything we repeat is likely very important.

Now, you will be ready for the last point in this sequence: celebrate. I do it by clearing my office and having a glass of nice wine.

photo credit: mpclemens via photopin cc

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