All writing comprises three things: words, sentences and paragraphs. If you know a few words, you can make a sentence. If you write a few sentences you can make a paragraph. Keep it simple. In the end, emails, blogs, books and novels are all made from the same substances. As long as you plan time to revise later, putting words down is easy.
There’s no right answer for what to do first. It doesn’t matter as long as you do something. Make an outline if you like. I often do. An outline gives structure, or the illusion of structure, which helps. Other times I have to turn off my mind and jump in. Only after I’ve driven myself mad wandering the page like an idiot can I map where to avoid, and where I’d like to go.
Writing begins with ideas, but we forget ideas are whispers in our minds. They’re always there. The trouble is we overpower the whispers with the loud voice of what we think we want our ideas to be. It takes quiet patience to listen carefully and that’s what creativity often means: simple quiet courage.
I keep a notebook with me at all times and that’s one habit that helps. In conversations with friends, when watching movies, or waiting for the bus, I silently write down little ideas. Sometimes as I write I discover more ideas beneath the first, so I write them down too. This may last a moment or five minutes. I have no rules other than writing little things down. I try to capture what’s in my head well enough to make sense a day or a week later when I return. Study a genius and you’ll find they had notebooks, sketchpads or prison walls to capture their thoughts. Our minds are not enough. Give me an assignment, and the first thing I’ll do is make sure my notebook is around with me all day.
Notebooks repel the fear of blank screens. They make it easy to copy a list from the notebook and put it on the top of any new thing. And the tool that holds the page is mostly irrelevant. I write in WordPress, Microsoft Word, Notepad, I don’t much care, and chasing tools is a waste of time. Shakespeare, Hemingway and Carver didn’t need much from their pre-electric and pre-web tools to write masterpieces and neither should you.
I don’t want a detailed outline, but I don’t want vagaries either. I aim for the sweet spot, a list of short sentences that demand explanation. I want sentence grenades, phrases loaded with opinion generating shrapnel for my mind. When I read them on the page I expect them to explode into opinions, thoughts, riffs and rants. How they explode depends on where my mind is at the moment. On another day they may send me to a different place, but I don’t worry about that day. Sometimes I abandon half the outline, or change the order of the sentences, or discover I have the opposite point of view I began with. I withhold judgment until there are enough words on the page to work with.
There will be dead ends and false starts but I don’t care as long as there is motion. Writing, but not revising, is all about motion. I’ll move to the next point and the next, hoping each grenade explodes, or reignites others, giving me a page of fodder to kick around. Like a fire when you’ve run out of wood, I can sense when the momentum has slowed and as I get my last runs in, I let it die. Then it is time for the work to begin.
In the first moment people get stuck they get scared. Inexperienced writers fear being stuck means they’ve done something wrong. I know the opposite is true. This is where the real work begins. It’s not writing until you’re stuck. When you’re stuck, you’re forced to think and thinking is good. Thinking is the entire point to the enterprise of writing. To think and feel and, through writing, express those thoughts and feelings to others. When you’re stuck it feels wrong, but it’s righteous. You’re being forced to reconsider what you’re doing and good writing demands consideration. Better for the writer to reconsider when writing than to have the reader consider it later and find it wanting.
When stuck I do one thing: Go to the top and reread. What seemed like a dead end will go away once you approach it again from the sequence of ideas in the preceding paragraphs. This is the one habit that makes me a better writer than the other guy. I read what I’m writing and improve it every time I read it through.
People say “that book was a great read” as if it’s a surprise. Isn’t that sad? All books should be good reads. No writer writes trying to be a bad read, a boring read. And the books that read better are ones the writer read often while writing it. Better writers might simply be better readers. They more diligently read their own work as they’re writing and fix mistakes of flow, pacing and thinking. These are more important than mistakes of vocabulary, flair or style, the three pretentious distractions we often think signify good writing. They often signify big egos and not much more.
There’s not much else to know. As I reread I refine like a river into a canyon, chipping away each time at little pieces, polishing the bits that hold up, and pushing away the ones that don’t. And when I can read through the whole piece without much changing I know I’m almost done. The last thing to do is to walk away. I need one final read with fresh eyes, eyes like my reader’s will have. And when I return there’s one more polish and pass: then it’s time to set it free and on its own into the world.
Watch a timelapsed video of this essay being written, live:
How to memorise a complete essay or speech
Christmas and New year is over and for some there looms the prospect of mid term exams. A lot of these exams will be closed book exams. A closed book exam tests your knowledge and memory of a subject. One of the ways in which some students prepare is to actively learn the subject areas and also look at past questions and anticipate a question which might come up. At the moment my wife is studying for exams in which she is actively learning her subjects and also she has written 3 x 500 word essays on the three areas of study.
Together we have come up with a system which means that she can memorise a 500 word essay in 1 day and 3 x 500 word essays in 3 days. Together with actively learning the subject she is confident that she has prepared well.
In this article I will show you the system we came up with to memorise 1500 words verbatim. Sound hard? It is actually quite easy and is a system I used when at university studying for my psychology degree for 2 x 1000 word essays.
This method can also be used for memorising any kind of written work or speech.
Before you begin
Before you begin this it is important to actually believe that you can memorise a complete essay or speech whether it be 500 words or 2000 words. When I first suggested using this method to my wife she said that she would never be able to memorise an essay word for word.
Once she got over this and started telling herself that she could do it we started.
First off, this method of memorising an essay should not be substituted for actively learning a subject. Active learning is when you read, not skim, the subject area and take note of the key points. Cross reading is also very good for active learning. This is when you read books on the subjects by different authors. Some authors are not good at getting information across so cross reading is an excellent way learning.
The method for memorising an essay or speech.
You will need to write out the essay or speech first. Treat this part of the process as if you were writing an essay to hand in for marking by your lecturer. In other words make sure it is worthy of memorising.
When you have written the essay make sure it is grammatically correct as you will be memorising every comma and full stop.
When you are sure you have a good essay or speech print it off and mark down the left margin the number of paragraphs e.g. if you have 6 paragraphs write at the side of each paragraph the numbers 1 – 6. In the right hand margin write the number of sentences in each paragraph. This is the first part of the memorisation process.
A quiet place to study
Now, make sure you have quiet space to be able to read, walk and vocalise your essay. When you are sure you will not be interrupted you can start.
With your printed essay start walking and reading out loud the essay or speech. When you have read it out loud a few times go back to the first sentence and read it out loud. Then read it again and again until you have memorised it. When you are confident you have memorised it word for word go on to the next sentence. When you have memorised the second sentence, whilst walking vocalise the first two sentences without looking at your printed essay. If you are okay with this go on to do the same with your 3rd sentence and so on until you have memorised your first full paragraph. This can take anywhere between 15 – 45 depending on motivation, alertness, quietness etc.
The reason I ask you to walk is to keep your blood flowing whilst memorising. If you are sitting down you might nod off, by walking it will prevent you from nodding off. I find walking up and down an excellent way to concentrate on reading.
Keep reading, and vocalising your essay or speech until you have memorised it completely. When you are confident of having memorised it. Vocalise it without looking at your printed sheet. If you get it right, do it again, and if you get it right a second time reward yourself with a cup of tea or coffee or whatever is your want and leave it for a few hours.
When a few hours have passed go back to the essay, read it out loud whilst walking and looking at the printed sheet and then try to memorise it again.
Once you are confident that you have memorised it completely, at the bottom of the page write down the first few words of each sentence of your essay, separated by a comma, and number each line for each paragraph. When you have done that put in the number of sentences at the end of the list and bracket it.
For example if I was writing out the first few words of this article for the first 3 paragraphs it would look like this;
- Christmas and New year, A lot of, A closed book, One of the, At the moment
- Together we have, Together with actively (2)
- In this article, sound hard? (2)
Now what you should do is only look at the list at the bottom of the paper and read out from that whilst walking. This way you are only looking at the first few words and finishing the sentence without looking at it. If you get stuck just go back to the main essay and look at it, until you have got it completely.
Now memorise the bottom of the sheet of paper with the first few words of the essay and how many sentences are in each paragraph. This should only take 10-15 minutes at the most.
This sounds a very convoluted way of memorising an essay but it is a lot easier than it reads here.
Time taken to memorise
You should be able to memorise a full 500 word essay in about 3 hours, for your first time, using the above method. When you are practiced you should be able to memorise a 500 word essay in about 60 – 90 minutes.