28 February 2009

Advice That Would Do Me No Harm

One of the most intriguing bits of advice I've come across in a while was in an article by Cory Doctorow for Locus. The piece, entitled 'Writing in the Age of Distraction', featured this curious nugget:
Don't Research
Researching isn't writing and vice-versa. When you come to a factual matter that you could google in a matter of seconds, don't. Don't give in and look up the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, the population of Rhode Island, or the distance to the Sun. That way lies distraction — an endless click-trance that will turn your 20 minutes of composing into a half-day's idyll through the web. Instead, do what journalists do: type "TK" where your fact should go, as in "The Brooklyn bridge, all TK feet of it, sailed into the air like a kite." "TK" appears in very few English words (the one I get tripped up on is "Atkins") so a quick search through your document for "TK" will tell you whether you have any fact-checking to do afterwards. And your editor and copyeditor will recognize it if you miss it and bring it to your attention.
I'm wondering whether I should internalise that one as an emergency remedy at the moment. Just write like a fiend, longhand, then type it all up, and then find out what I don't know and fill in the gaps. It might just work...

His six key tips, for what it's worth, for this age when we're constantly 'distracted and sometimes even overwhelmed by the myriad distractions that lie one click away on the Internet' are:
  1. Short, regular work schedule
  2. Leave yourself a rough edge (And I find this is very counterintuitive!)
  3. Don't research
  4. Don't be ceremonious
  5. Kill your wordprocessor
  6. Realtime communications tools are deadly
Number five is probably the most interesting, just from a technical point of view, and leaves me thinking that the way to go probably is handwriting rather than typing, at least to start with, preferably using my fountain pen, that elegant weapon for a more civilized age.

And speaking of more civilized ages and working habits, one of my favourite passages in non-fiction comes from C.S. Lewis's Surprised by Joy, where he describes his days in Surrey under the tutelage of William T. Kirkpatrick on the eve of the Great War. Kirkpatrick, or 'The Old Knock', who had been headmaster of Lurgan College many years before when Lewis's father had been a pupil, was perhaps the most rigorous thinker Lewis ever met. As Lewis reminisced on their days together:
We now settled into a routine which has ever since served in my mind as an archetype, so that what I still mean when I speak of a "normal" day (and lament that normal days are so rare) is a day of the Bookham pattern. For if I could please myself I would always live as I lived there.

I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a cup of good tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better. A step or so out of doors for a pint of beer would not do quite so well; for a man does not want to drink alone and if you meet a friend in the taproom the break is likely to be extended beyond its ten minutes.

At one precisely lunch should be on the table; and by two at the latest I would be on the road. Not, except at rare intervals, with a friend. Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them. Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the outdoor world; and talking leads almost inevitably to smoking, and then farewell to nature as far as one of our senses is concerned. The only friend to walk with is one (such as I found, during the holidays, in Arthur) who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge, is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared.

The return from the walk, and the arrival of tea, should be exactly coincident, and not later than a quarter past four. Tea should be taken in solitude, as I took it as Bookham on those (happily numerous) occasions when Mrs. Kirkpatrick was out; the Knock himself disdained this meal. For eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably. Of course not all books are suitable for mealtime reading. It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table. What one wants is a gossipy, formless book which can be opened anywhere. The ones I learned so to use at Bookham were Boswell, and a translation of Herodotus, and Lang's History of English Literature. Tristram Shandy, Elia and the Anatomy of Melancholy are all good for the same purpose.

At five a man should be at work again, and at it till seven. Then, at the evening meal and after, comes the time for talk, or, failing that, for lighter reading; and unless you are making a night of it with your cronies (and at Bookham I had none) there is no reason why you should ever be in bed later than eleven.

But when is a man to write his letters? You forget that I am describing the happy life I led with Kirk or the ideal life I would live now if I could. And it is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail and never dread the postman's knock.
The postman never knocks here, I fear, but I dread his not coming. I spend far too much time listening for a bulky letter or a parcel being shoved through the letterbox, and all this waiting is doing me no good.


Martin said...

Interesting to read that "TK" tip. I do the same, only with the # character, which I guarantee appears in fewer English words than the tk combination. I write like a fiend in the evenings (pace Lewis, whenever I'm writing big, I'm up way past 11), and in the mornings I do a search on # to find out what I should be looking up in the library.

CëRïSë said...

That is good advice, of course. I'm supposed to be writing at the moment, and am instead reading the Internets...