It’s that time of year when the magazine and newspaper supplements are full of things you should do/ should stop doing in order to have ‘your best year yet’. Top of the list is always some sort of detoxing – foods to avoid, foods to eat in abundance, and good health habits to cultivate.
But what about your writing? The start of the year is a good time to review your writing practice, and identify what’s working for you and what could do with tweaking. So how do you detox your writing? Let’s look at how you write, and what you write.
Detox the Way You Write
Take a few deep breaths to clear your mind, and then go to the place where you do the majority of your writing, whether it’s your study, the sofa, or a cubbyhole under the stairs. If you normally write in a coffee shop or library, then imagine the place.
What’s your immediate reaction? If it’s anything other than ‘Oh goody, let’s get writing’, your writing space could do with a detox. How cluttered is it? How sparse? How warm and inviting? Over the past few years, we’ve heard a lot about decluttering – stripping back everything that you don’t absolutely love and have to have in your life, and now the trend has flipped the other way and I’ve noticed a trend towards re-cluttering. But before you rush out to restock on junk, remember that what is sparse to one person is untidy to another. What’s important is what you need to feel comfortable and creative.
Can you easily put your hand on the right notebook, outline or character sketch? If not, rearrange things, discarding and refiling as necessary until everything you need for your writing is close by. This might well be a tidying up exercise, but not necessarily. If you work best with music playing or with a scented candle burning, you might need to move your i-pod dock and candles into your writing space.
My own desk has a scented oil burner, an array of notebooks in bright colours, a mug full of pens, a box of index cards, a light, a radio and a salt lamp on it. Not so bare I feel inhibited, and not so cluttered (for me) that I can’t find what I need. But that’s me – you will have different requirements for your writing, so gather what you need and set up your space so it works for you. If you normally write in a coffee shop and it’s not quite as inspiring as you’d like, shop around trying different places at different times of the day until you find one with the right level of busyness/ peace for you.
Detox What You Write
We all have bad habits when we write. Metaphors and similes that we’re too fond of; words we don’t quite know the meaning of but use anyway; and words we get muddled up. For example, I’m far too fond of describing shock as ‘her heart turned to stone’. The first time it was probably OK, but now I’ve overused it and need to find a better way to describe what shock feels like. I have a bad habit of using ‘like’ instead of ‘as though’ (‘it was like her heart turned to stone’ vs ‘it was as though her heart turned to stone’) and I’m not all that clear on the difference between might and may. But knowing these weaknesses means I take more care when I use them in my writing, and (hopefully!) get them right.
Look at your own writing and seek out your bad habits. Do you use visible words when writing dialogue? For example, instead of simply using ‘he said’, do you tend to write, ‘he bellowed/ cried/ screamed/ expostulated’?
Not sure about the difference between effect and affect, or between perspicacious or perspicacity? Continual and continuous? Knowing that you have a blind spot when it comes to these words is helpful, because you’ll know to double check every time you use them.
Editors, agents and publishers will point them out, or you can ask a trusted friend to read your work and highlight your writing bad habits.
It can be hard to spot bad habits in your own writing, but here are a few tips:
1. Change the font and font size before re-reading and editing your piece. This shifts the line breaks and makes the writing appear ‘new’ to your eyes, meaning you’re more likely to spot mistakes.
2. Change the size of the viewing pane – if you normally write and edit with the screen at 100%, change it to 150%.
3. Read your piece from the bottom up – this takes away the meaning and flow of the piece and means you can concentrate on the actual words.
With your writing space optimised for happy writing, and an awareness of where you need to adjust what you write, you’ve set yourself up nicely for a year of productive writing.
Happy detoxing and writing!
All the best,
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.