Friday, 27 June 2014

7 steps to Prolific, or more Productive Writing

Most writers and intrigued by the idea that they might be more productive. Some writers want to become prolific. Some writers, such as Shakespeare, were able to churn out two or more major works every year; others, such as Charles Dickens or Walter Scott, astonish us by the sheer quantity of their work.

I was surprised to discover recently that my writing notebook lists plans for 23 books. Clearly some of these projects are little more than a title and an outline. So the problem is not having ideas, it’s more a question of having the time, the discipline and the confidence to see them through to completion as published works. In short, I am now trying to increase my productivity by researching some of the recurring ideas typically adopted by successful writers.

While doing some research recently on translations of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, I cam across the impressive productivity of JackLindsay, who produced 170 creative and non-fiction works during his long career.

But do you have to be a genius to be so prolific? Or is it more a case of responding efficiently and effectively to commercial deadlines?

1. The Necessity of Discipline.
“Rule your mind or it will rule you.” — Horace

Simply waiting for inspiration to drive your creative output is a highly risky strategy. Even the great romantic writers employed discipline. While it is essential to experience those fleeting moments of exuberant fancy and whimsical speculation, it is equally important to write them up in such a way that they will make sense at a later date. Your notebook is an essential tool for catching and capturing your creative flow.

2. The Benefits of Routine.
“I began to realize how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with fixed hours, a fixed salary, and very little original thinking to do.” — Roald Dahl

Design and create your routine rather than following someone else’s plan. Some writers find that they work best early morning; others burn the midnight oil. Some writers need the silence of the monastery or the peace of the nunnery, while others prefer the bustle of a cafĂ© or the rhythm of a train or bus journey. Some writers work for thirty minutes, others for three hours. My advise therefore is to experiment with different routines and note down which combination of space and time produces the best results.

3. Maps, structures, outlines
“Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning.” — Winston Churchill

Often there is a romantic sense that knowing your future direction at the outset will cramp your creativity; that writing becomes mechanical when it is strictly planned. On the other hand it is quite common to start projects with great enthusiasm but then to experience writer’s block in the more complex middle phases. Even worse, you may find that your work is fruitless because not matter how hard you try there is a lack of a suitable conclusion for your creative efforts. Radical uncertainty of this kind frequently leads to anxiety and paralysis. Moreover, there repeated experience of failure to complete leads to a weakening of your willpower and motivation in the medium term. By finishing projects your confidence grows and develops, allowing you to undertake more creative risks with a reduce chance of blockage or failure.

4. Speed Drafting
“Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.” — Henry David Thoreau

Having capture your key ideas and imposed a provisional structure it is now time to work in more detail. This means fleshing out your ideas and feelings. At this stage it is essential to write quickly and to avoid agonising over precise words and phrases. Don’t worry about writing the most astonishing and eye-catching first sentence; first paragraphs are often better written at the end of your writing phase.

5. Revisioning
“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Writing typically moves from fleeting moments of inspiration to the discipline of the draft: the process of revisioning. This process requires critical insights more than creative flow. It is also often best accomplished several day or weeks after your speed drafting. This period allows time for critical thoughts to develop and for your to be more objective. The revision stage often involves contraction as well as amplification of your ideas. So be prepared for cutting down, chopping up, and repositioning your thoughts.

6. Taming the Dragons of Destruction.
“Anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity.” — T. S. Eliot

It is very important that we learn to apply critical perception to our creative works. However, for many writers the negative thoughts can crowd out the ability to write confidently. The inner voice that questions your skills and ability, that constantly interrogates your sense of having a worthwhile and unique vision is the viral plague that constantly affects the tribe of writers. With experience writers learn that each of the key stages outlined above requires different degrees of critical and creative insight, and they learn to enjoy the unique character of each of the different stages. Accordingly, switch of destructive and negative thoughts. Keep reminding yourself that others will want to read your work, and that your work has value because it is the product of your unique perspective on the world.

7. Learning from others.
“Learning never exhausts the mind.” — Leonardo da Vinci

Great writers are also great readers. By studying the work of others we improve our writing skills. By becoming critical readers we sharpen our creative tools. Also, the creative work of others can allow the writer to contemplate re-tellings and re-visioning of the body of experience. Remember that the vast majority of Shakespeare’s plays were derived from printed sources written by others. He also learned the craft of writing by collaborating, by being a member of writing community. Nor did he confine himself to the writer’s room. For writing is also a big, bold, bracing encounter with life itself, and that’s not be had by staring at a blank screen. Finding the most sustainable balance between real writing and real life might be your biggest strategic decision.

Writing Machine, Swift, Gulliver's Travels (1726)

“Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.” —  Paul J. Meyer

Poetry at War with Itself: the Sound of Futility

When student readers struggle with poetry, it's often the relationship between sound and sense that presents a high degree of difficulty. It's very easy to be overcome by pitter-patter rhythms and arcane names for metrical techniques and poetic forms.

But picking sound patterns may help to open up a variety of interpretations. This means shifting from the identification of a local effect to the elaboration of more complex and nuanced semantic possibilities.

The first sonic task for the critical reader involves the spotting of similar sounds such as alliteration. A higher level of creative reading requires sensitivity in order to link these sound clusters to the poem's questions, and its answers.

A great poem holds together, in tight compression, the different elements of form and technique, tones and style, form and content. Critical writing - the exposition and appreciation of a poem - involves a reversal of this process: decompression.

By association, sounds breed other sounds, and suggest other senses. Often the sound elements will help to unlock the key themes in a poem. In fact, sounds may help us to identify the main theme, and also may help us to point out its component parts. Subliminally, perhaps, the sounds also hint at multiple levels and layers of meaning. Packed into a small space, such as a sonnet, a poem is bursting at the seams. The poet binds the elements together using form and technique.

Sound associations help to hold everything together. . Also, sounds help us to focus on a cluster of meanings. They also open up new possibilities for interpretation.

One strategy which I often find productive is to identify the relationship between words with similar sounds and their meanings. This approach combines thoughts and feelings: sound and sense.

In the example that follows, I've selected S as my key sound, in order to unlock the poem in some way, by attending to one element of its sound world.  But I'm sure that you guessed that already, right?
Marconi Wireless (1914)

Let's try this out on a poem called 'Futility' composed by the First World war poet Wilfred Owen (18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918):

(What s-words would you associate with war? perhaps your class could compile a list before they read this poem?)

Move him into the sun--
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it awoke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds--
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved,--still warm,--too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
--O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all? 

The first thing that you might spot is that it's a Sonnet. Unusually, the poem is presented in two sections, each with Seven lines. Why do you think seven is significant?

Perhaps the most significant alliterative S-words are sun, snow, seeds, star, sleep, seeds, sides, stir, still, sunbeams ...

But note also the s-sounds in France, whispering, fields, its, this, clays, limbs, wakes, rouse, once, so, was, fatuous, earth's ...

The poem's meaning emerges from a variety of oppositions between past, present, and future; between hot and cold; the living and the dead.

The sun is God-like and has the potential for stimulation, animation and creation (in seven days); this moves out into 'seeds' and 'stirs' ... and through 'rouse,' 'whispering' and 'wakes.' This is the poetic of life and arousal. 

In this sense, 'move', is not simply a physical displacement, but perhaps an address to the reader on the possibility of being of being moved - the capacity to experience emotion. But the potential for human warmth of feeling is constantly ebbing away, caught up in the sterility of the poem's title: futility.

Is the whispering a trick? Does the prevalence of s suggest the serpent or the snake (absent from the poem), and the fatal attraction of war? Does this stretch the misreading that is emerging, or does it start to reveal what is masked? Divine light seems like a mockery in the context of widescale madness and universal tragedy. Such, in nihilistic terms, is the futility of life.

Is there a meaning to life? Perhaps we will seek in vain for answers in poems? Is there an answer to war? Doesn't poetry, in fact, thrive on inner conflicts, the tensions in a line, the multiple oppositional meanings at war, all boxed up in a little room, in the stanza, in the sonnet?

Accordingly, the life affirming s-world is balanced by the opposite s-words, such as : sleep, still, snow; this is the poetics of death and extinction.

The first light of morning spins alongside its dark other half: mourning.

Then there are all the half-rhymes that suggest two worlds that don't really fit together. The poem resists harmony and symmetry. Too much formal order, too systematic and rigid an approach, is not what is needed?

The poem has become a cold monument to the living, the supreme art form that mocks life just as it re-animates it in the repetition of reading the words on the page, the lexis of a dead poet.

Like bodies, poems are alive, full-nerved, and warm. But they are also dead things; they are moments eternally frozen in time. That's why the romantic writer John Keats is such a great influence on Wilfred Owen. You recall perhaps the wild frenzy and violence depicted on his Grecian Urn, and its ambiguous first line

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness

Keats imagined a generation wasted by old age; Owen witnessed his generation destroyed by war. Despite finding a deathly cold-pastoral in the immortal object of art, Keat's opted for a judgement that was potentially affirmative

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Owen is perhaps more bitter. The warmth that was there at the outset becomes ironic with the impossibility, the futility of 'kind' and 'know' that terminate the first half of the sonnet. What does he know?

His poem ends with a question, rather than the answer to the situation that he presents.

But there are also sound possibilities than don't find their way into the poem. Why not compare the poem's s- words with your s- sound expectations. Then formulate your own questions...

For me, there were two s-words that did not find their way into the poem.




Perhaps Owen had his reasons?

© Dr Ian McCormick.
Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) Also available on Kindle, or to download.

Also worth a look: The PhD Roadmap: A Guide to Successful Submission of your Dissertation / Thesis.

Further Resources

A First World War School Activity Day - Programme and Schemes of Work . A Free Resource.
"Ugly Urchin Alliteration: a Poetry Appreciation Primer." Blog.
"Sound must seem an echo to the Sense!" Blog.