On navigating the constellation of words

You are writing a blog post, text for a web page or a feature for a publication.

You have prepared with commendable diligence. You have a good understanding of who you are writing for. You have worked out the messages you wish to communicate. You know what style and tone of voice will be appropriate for your audience. The building blocks you need are arranged before you, ready to hand. All that remains is to assemble them into a coherent passage of text.

So what now? What is the process by which those words, concepts, images, quotations, facts and figures come together to form a coherent, engaging narrative?

The truth is, I really don’t know. I’m not sure if anyone does. There is no rigorous, repeatable system for transforming the elements that will form a passage of text into compelling prose. It’s a process that relies on intuition as much as logic. Turning ideas into something readable is more like arranging a harmonious series of notes than assembling machinery, building a house or writing computer code. It’s a mysterious, elusive process that can baffle even the most experienced writer. An impeccably researched piece can sadly underwhelm, somehow less than the sum of its parts.

Swirling nebulae

For me it helps simply to embrace that mystery, to accept that writing is an untidy and enigmatic business that must be accepted on its own, contrary, terms.

I don’t find many of the images associated with the writing process particularly helpful. Often they suggest an ideal of linear progression. The pen moves from one line to the next, words, sentences and paragraphs succeeding each other with logical inevitability in accord with the writer’s well ordered mind. Or the typewriter hammers out characters with fearless confidence, each carriage return marking the confident narrator’s relentless march forward.

The idea of a network seems to me more helpful, and accurate. A passage of text slowly assembles itself like atoms coming together to build out a molecular structure. Or it forms itself like a constellation: swirling clouds of dust and gas concentrate into nebulae and stars, and – in good time – cluster together to form galaxies.

I experience writing as a process of finding connections between words, images, metaphors and concepts. A passage of text is constructed less like a building, rising upwards piece by piece, than like a network, expanding outwards in every direction.

I begin by finding words, ideas and images that seem to work well together. These clusters suggest sentences, then paragraphs, which eventually organises themselves into sustained passages of text.

I don’t worry whether my words seem to want to group together at what I expect to be the beginning, middle or end of the piece I’m writing. Sometimes the middle or even the concluding sections are the first to take shape. Usually I move back and forwards between different parts of the text, gradually elaborating clusters of paragraphs. I rarely write the opening section first. Indeed it seems to me that if an introduction is intended to serve as a window onto the main body of the text it makes sense to move onto it only when those central passages are well advanced. It’s easier to write an introduction if you have a clear idea of what you are introducing.

And I often find myself writing what I expect to be the ‘highlights’ of my piece at a fairly early stage in the process. These are the passages featuring the images and metaphors I think work best, the little snippets of text that I hope will somehow entangle themselves in the imagination and make an impression on the reader. (I count as successful any piece that contains just one or two of those moments.) I want to make absolutely sure my final text includes these, so I like to get them down early on. I then work on the surrounding text that links them together. To return to the galactic metaphor: these passages are like the brightest stars in my little constellation of words. They shine brightly, but they can only do so in relation to the stars around them that burn with less intensity.

Patience and a seat by the window

It all sounds like a rather painstaking process. And for me it is. Writing anything requires patience. You just have to sit with it until it’s done. It has less to do with inspiration than keeping office hours. It’s a job to see through like any other with the help of tea, coffee, a window to look through, and, if possible, the occasional walk.

And writing requires experience, because the more you do it, the sharper your judgement becomes, and the easier it becomes to sense how words, metaphors, images, sentences and paragraphs work together.

The reward for all this fumbling in the dark comes towards the end of the process, when you get a sense that something coherent is coming into focus. You have a few memorable images. Some sentences have a pleasing shape, and work well with their neighbours. You can discern a logical argument. Now that your text has a robust structure, you can start to embellish it, like a painter adding the final strokes to a canvas or a sculptor refining a block of marble.

So how do you know when it’s finished? I think it’s simply when the time allocated to the project has run out. It’s never possible to declare that a passage of text meets some perfect ideal. There are multiple ways it could have been written. At each point in the process of composition there were several paths that could have been taken, different directions in which the network of constellation of words could have been extended. The writer has simply used their judgement, refined through experience, to find connections that seemed to them to be more pleasing than the alternatives.

And though it perhaps doesn’t seem so at the time I know my deadline is my friend, allowing me to escape an impulse to perfectionism and rest content with whatever it is that I’ve managed to produce in the available time. I often re-read words I’ve written a couple of weeks after submission and immediately identify something I would now do differently. But I need to move on to the next project. The consolation if you write often is that the next project will offer opportunities for implementing some of what you wish you had done last time.

This post is no exception. I’ll probably look back on it before long and see what could have been expressed more clearly, what was missed or what could have been omitted. But by then my focus will be elsewhere. I hope that, whatever those imperfections might be, it’s been of some value for you, right now.