It’s always a rat’s nest before it’s done

Do you ever think about how one part of your life can inform another?

In my other life I spend a lot of time writing grant applications.  (For organisations, not for me!)  There’s a bit of a formula to it, a structure imposed either by an application form or by the funder’s guidelines.  I slot things in here and there, working out the best place to mention this bit of the project and the best way to ‘sell’ its importance.  I make notes to myself and my collaborators in brackets: “(We need to mention the links with X here)”; “(I’m not sure what this means – can you explain?)”; “(Is this actually true?)”  I move paragraphs about and work on some of them in separate documents.  Sometimes I start again.

And these are the things I know:

It always looks like a rat’s nest before it’s finished.

I always reach a point where I think, this time I can’t make it work.

I always manage it in the end.

So why, oh why, do I expect my creative writing to be any different?  Why should I be surprised and discouraged because I read through something I’ve written and realise it’s not what I thought it was when I was writing it?  Why should I expect it to flow from my fingers with ease?

Writing is a stop-start thing.  Sometimes it flows, but then you hit a bump and maybe you just have to put a note in brackets, “(something about badgers in here)”, and come back to it later.  Eventually you’ll always have to stop and edit, and sometimes you’ll realise the best editing you can do is the kind that starts with a fresh blank page and a fresh cup of tea.

And, for me this week, the best lesson from all of this is that sometimes you have to take what you know from the rest of your life and apply it to your creative writing.  In my grants writing, I work best within a structure, even if I change that structure seventeen times in an afternoon.  Doesn’t this tell me that my creative brain would also thank me for a bit of structure?  And it also helps my creative brain to remember this pearl of wisdom from my grants-writing self:

It’s always a rat’s nest before it’s done.  And that’s ok.

Don’t switch it on

pen and paperIt’s the only way to begin.

If I begin the day writing, I’m likely to continue writing.  If I  begin the day by switching on the computer (to use it as my writing tool), I’m likely to spend hours reading other people’s writing, responding to business emails and getting caught up in my other work.

So now, I don’t switch it on.

Yes, writing with a pen is slower than typing.  But writing something is better than writing nothing.

Yes, at some point I have to type up what I’ve written – assuming I decide to use it.  But that’s a great opportunity for editing, and I can do it later in the day when I’ve already done my most creative work and set myself on the writing track for the day.

I also find that once I’ve begun on paper, I’m somehow less easily distracted once I do migrate to the keyboard.

I’m biased, of course.  I’ve always loved pens and notebooks and look for any excuse to use them.  But this really does work, I promise – at least for me, and at least for this week.

Typos, punctuation and grammar: a can of worms

How long will you keep reading after you spot the first error in a piece of writing?  Yes, I know I’m opening a real can of worms here, but I’m interested to hear what you think and feel about typos, misplaced apostrophes and the like.  (I know you’ll be kind and measured in your responses; I’m not going to rant and neither are you!  And please: if you spot a mistake – won’t that be just typical – do tell me, but gently.  Think about the extra hours I’ve spent making sure I haven’t made any real howlers in this particular post.)

The thing is, the creative part of me wants to feel that we should be able to see beyond the little mistakes in following what might be seen as arbitrary rules.  (Why shouldn’t I spell arbitry like that, since that’s how many people pronounce it?  Why does it matter whether or not I put an apostrophe in “that’s“?)

Oh, but the creative rebel is always shouted down by the stickler for accuracy in grammar, spelling and punctuation.  She’ll get very twitchy after the first couple of errors.  Somehow, it does matter.  (I realised I had something of an obsession when my then-six-year-old stopped reading Mr Men books because he didn’t like the way they were written.  The apple definitely stuck close to the tree there!)

I’m not saying that the stickler is necessarily right in her inability to see past a mistake.  It’s all very personal, I think, and the norms and conventions are always evolving.  The evolution seems to be happening very fast in this online age, and maybe I’m just an old fart who can’t keep up.  Maybe I need to let my creative rebel free and go with the flow.

So tell me – are you more forgiving of mistakes than I am?  What, if anything, does that say about each of us as writers?

[Writer ducks behind a wall and throws the open can of worms into the open street.]


I recently had to edit something I’d written down from 12,000 words to less than 9,000.  It amazed me that with a snip here, and a wrench there, it was possible to cut out many of the words I’d carefully put together without – I hope – losing the sense.

Did the editing improve it?  I’m not sure yet – it’s too soon for me to be able to tell.  But I also spent a happy ten minutes in the greenhouse today snipping leaves off my tomato plants to give the remaining green tomatoes light and air in which to ripen.  I hope the same thing works for words.