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how I write by Paul Johnston


The simplest answer to the question “How do I write?” is “with difficulty”, but to be fair it is more complicated than that. I like writing and I usually have a lot of ideas of things it would be good to write, but execution is more of problem. I am reasonably disciplined at sitting down at the desk, but I certainly don't produce (or even aim to produce) a set number of words a day. Any progress I make tends to come in fits and starts – I will always write something, but there is a constant risk that the next day I will decide that what I produced was worthless and needs to be completely redone. The idea that you might slowly but surely transfer what is in your head onto the paper seems to me an impossible dream, but apparently some people manage it! My approach is more – force yourself to put something down on paper and then come back later and try to make it better.


I like to think I have a good feel for flow and I certainly want what I write to have a good shape, so when I read back what I have written, there are always lots of places where I think the gears change too quickly or the reader suddenly gets hit by an idea coming out of nowhere. At that point my paragraphs seem to me like unwieldy blocks of stone that won't fit together to make any kind of well-architected whole. In the past, what I tended to do was to try to use lots of filler, so that the reader's mind could sort of run smoothly through the text. The drawback with this approach is that you end up with lots of in-between bits that aren't really adding much value. Unfortunately that can happen both on the macro-level and on the micro with individual sentences becoming flabby as more and more words are injected to improve something that is never really going to work.


Three of the books I have written relate to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and, while I certainly can't think like him, it is reassuring that he seemed to struggle with some of the problems I face when writing. The richness and speed of his thinking left him with a wealth of interesting ideas that he struggled to put into a satisfying order. In his first book the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus he took a sledgehammer to the problem and presented his views as a forbidding set of numbered propositions with seven main propositions and lower level commentaries and sub-commentaries on them. So remark 5.5352 is the second commentary on the fifth commentary (5.535) on the third commentary (5.53) on the fifth commentary (5.5) on proposition 5. This approach certainly gives an appearance of rigour and order, but it is not really much help to the reader and I suspect with hindsight Wittgenstein would have seen it as both deadening and unsuccessful. In his later book The Philosophical Investigations he opts for a much freer style, but he is somewhat caught between his wish to convince and and an aesthetic and moral commitment to restraint and leaving some of the work for the reader. In fact, he never did solve the problem of ordering his thoughts or making them flow as a book. The later Wittgenstein was an author of notebooks and remarks – the books we have by him were put together (successfully or unsuccessfully) by his editor executors.

Kafka, about whom I recently wrote a short ebook, is very different writer, although he too was not great at finishing books. His prose is beautifully controlled and pure, which will no doubt come as a surprise to those who have read him in the folksy English translations of the Edwin and Willa Muir. Fortunately better translations are now available. In Why Kafka is Not Kafkaesque I tried to write in a more pared-back kind of way, so I think for me Kafka can be a positive influence. Less can be more and there are ways to create polish and rhythm that don't rely on lots of filler. So I am pleased with my e-book; a rather different kind of book for me and written in a different style. But Rome was not built in a day. I am still a writer that tends to do a lot of re-working – maybe that's me or maybe I just need more practice ...


Paul's excellent and thought provoking book can be bought on amazon- just click HERE

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