Statement: I love writing. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone by now, even if you’re only visiting this site for the second or third time. I’ve always loved writing — even as a seven-year-old boy in primary school, scrawling excessively long fantasy stories in my exercise books, my tongue poking out of the corner of my mouth as I sank deep into childhood concentration. A couple of years ago, when I finally began to discover all the various avenues for writing that exist on the internet, my thirst for communicating using the written word became even stronger. In that sense, the net has been a hugely valuable outlet.
If I find myself unable to write for a couple of days, it almost drives me to distraction; conversely, the very act of near-incessant writing often has the same effect. It’s a worrying sign when I find myself sitting on the bus and passing the time by scratching various words on the free space inside a used book of postage stamps, or when I find myself flicking idly between three very different pieces of writing and typing parts of each of them without giving it a second thought.
Yet I’m also aware that the ease of placing one’s words on the net almost inevitably produces short-term content — there are scraps, lines and paragraphs here, there and everywhere. Indeed, this particular piece of text will disappear into my archives in four days, when it reaches the bottom of the screen, and who’s going to see it then? So what remains elusive, and unfortunately only surfaces occasionally, is the longer-term proposition — the piece of writing that has a beginning, a middle and an end, and in which something happens along the way. I know that it’s there (in fact, I know that there’s more than one example of this floating around in my brain somewhere) — it’s just a question of coaxing it out. That’s another matter.
However, with all these words buzzing in and out of my head and refusing to be silenced, I should remember to occasionally step back and consider the practical methodology behind the madness. I’m not talking about solipsistic navel-gazing over the emotional issues of writing (I’ve done enough of that here already), but real, practical questions about what I’m saying and how I’m saying it. Not forgetting the question of why the hell I’m saying it too. In fact, everyone who is consumed by the writing bug should be doing this — and probably more frequently than any of us choose to do so at the moment.
That’s why I was inspired and stunned in equal measure by the Keith Waterhouse article that Tom posted on plasticbag.org. Waterhouse is a Fleet Street columnist (as well as a novelist and dramatist) from the old school, most likely to be found wearing a crumpled jacket and sweating over a mechanical typewriter. He is from an era when writing was undoubtedly less transient than it has become in the digital age. However, his 25 tips on writing a newspaper column do, as Tom points out, offer some salient pointers for anyone writing for the web (including much maligned weblog writers). It’s been said time and time before — but if you only read one thing today, make it this article.
There is so much to seize upon in what Waterhouse says, although I firmly believe that he hammers home the most vitally important point first:
“It’s not so much what you say as the way that you say it. Your column must have a distinctive voice, to the extent that if your byline were accidentally dropped, your readers would still know who was writing. If your style isn’t instantly recognisable, what you have there is not a column but a signed article.”
In all I write, I hope and aspire to that goal. I believe — said with just a hint of false modesty — that I occasionally achieve it too.