On the stylistic choosing of words

Flowers. Style. Flowery style. Styled flowers. Tulips so stereotypically the Netherlands, 2017.

Today, when reading Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence, I learnt that the title structure, such as mine here, starting ‘on’ was typical of Montaigne, who I haven’t read, and was played with by Virginia Woolf, who I have read, creating titles such as ‘On Illness’. Dillon writes about the introductory sentence of Woolf’s essay On Illness, which I feel I have read, although maybe I have merely read that oft-quoted first sentence. I say oft-quoted meaning I’m sure I’ve seen it quoted before and therefore assume that it’s the sort of sentence that people who have sentences to hand for demonstration frequently choose to show.

If my words are wandering today, it’s because at some point, I took a turn off the main path, followed a goat track, tripped over an unexpecting branch and left my life in a pickle trying to carve a route all of its own. Sometimes this route is carved with a machete, sometimes the butter knife. At the moment – pandemic and all – it’s definitely the butter knife style of progression I’m witnessing. In other words, I’m feeling a little disorientated. Slow even.


I am being chased by the word ‘obdurate’. Yesterday I had to look it up in the dictionary. Today I find Dillion uses it. As does the article I read in the London Review of Books this afternoon. The same thing happened fifteen years ago with the word ‘altruistic’, which followed me around until I wasn’t sure whether it was a normal everyday word, and I was dim, or it was a poncy word and better left unsaid. ‘Altruistic’ makes it into a video on elephants I’m studying with one of my students. Selfless elephants are good at caring for one another.

My writing is undoubtedly, or indubitably, mutating (albeit in a butter-knife fashion of progress). I’m reading so much and writing so much it can hardly do anything but change; yet I’m doing so ploddingly, we can hardly call anything here machete action. That said, I’m pretty stubborn – or shall I say obdurate? – about writing. It’s like a compulsion: an addiction to unravelling a language that refuses to be pinned down, my mongrel tongue, idiolectical phrasing, use of words like ‘happenence’.


But my writing mutates to what exactly? And my life is wandering where? And are the two irrevocably connected. And for a woman who spends so much time putting words on the page, why is my spelling so atrocious sometimes? And…


In addition to Dillon’s book on sentences, I find myself reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which throws you on the first page with its ‘—“I prefer men to cauliflowers,”—’ entrapped in two em-dashes, giving you no guidance as to what you’re reading and leaving you pretty much confused until a third of the way through the book where you settle down praying that dear Mrs Woolf will keep the surprising cauliflowers out of her prose and instead give you something that resembles a story.

‘—“I prefer men to cauliflowers,”—’ such a line would have been better placed in Terry Pratchett. I’ve just finished the father’s copy of Moving Pictures and that has a section referring to cabbages. Cabbages, cauliflowers… Although Pratchett most loved to use his em-dashes to end a line of dialogue. Thus the phrase might need a slight stylistic rearrangement… “I prefer men to cauli—”

Like fire, storm or thunder… the written word

Summer in rural Peru
January 2020

I cannot read her work, so when a journalist friend tells me that she’s surprised when someone compliments her writing, I cannot judge for myself what she is publishing.

However, I am well-acquainted with her self-possessed use of the English language. You wouldn’t guess that neither of her parents speaks English from the elaborate emails she writes to me. Although, when free from the newspaper word-limit she’s undoubtedly verbose, her words captivate.

Words are magic.

Written words stimulate the imagination as much as any other external reality – fire, storm, thunder – and yet they can express an internal reality – hope, philosophy, mood – in ways which also provoke the imagination, engage with that astounding faculty and set it off to make more words, adding to the visible map of the mind. Writing helps us to see what it is to be more completely human.

Melvyn Bragg, The Adventure of English

I think by writing. My borrowed thoughts and beliefs get tested and made mine by my efforts to commit them to paper. When times get tricky, I reach to the written word. Through the written word I learnt to communicate about rape. My diaries hold the words I often don’t know how to say. Words like love, fear, grief, sex.

Considering that I was born with some mild disadvantage when it comes to the spoken word, it’s unsurprising that my linguistic confidence is so linked to pen and paper. Maybe Freud would say that after a childhood of having my h’s, t’s, a’s, u’s and f’s corrected (ridiculed), it’s of no surprise that I make my living teaching others to speak well. Or proper, as I would prefer to say.

My father thinks it mad that I am an English teacher. His daughter who started life with clogged up lugs and a lazy tongue, who couldn’t work out how many claps to fit in the rhythm of her own name, who, he jokes, learnt to speak after the younger one…

And yet, last summer my increasingly deaf grandfather complimented the clarity of my speech, quite taking me aback. But, he’s right. Not without toil, I am cleaning up my pronunciation: letting my day-to-day English slide towards what we call received pronunciation, standard, BBC or posh. I am challenging my substandard articulation and like a boy, whose voice is deepening, from time to time make sounds that surprise me. Sometimes I cringe to hear myself.

I’m not eradicating my language of the past, just reducing the ignorance that limited it.

I know full well that the way we speak forms and restricts our identities. I have no problem with teaching at the weekend as on the weekend to my Latin American students (even if I think it sounds ugly), but I’m clear that it’s not the way I speak. My students need a consistent, reliable English and there’s no point getting all uppity about one flavour of the language being better than another. Prepositions are tricky enough at the best of times. People are generally insecure enough about their language without having it picked-to-death by pedants.

I would correct their use of I am sat if they ever thought to make such a mistake, with the caveat that it’s not unsaid back home. When I teach, I do not pretend that there is one righteous English. And the more I teach, the more I fall in love. The richness is in the variety, the endless possibilities that tempts and taunts us. Yet I no longer feel at the mercy of the rulebook. My dialectical twists of grammar exist because I choose them to. I know more about English grammar than most native speakers. When someone points out that a word I say doesn’t exist to them, I no longer take it quite so personally.

Chaucer used a different flavour of English for each of his storytellers in his Canterbury Tales. Since then the language has grown, but the idea that we can each have such unique voices is still as true as ever. 

We each have our vocabulary – visible maps of our minds. Mine holds my words, whilst my friends each have their distinct linguistic maps. Idiolects mostly coinciding with the dictionary and grammar guides, but not always. Even within the closeness of family, my mother and I debate across the dining room table with phrases that the other would never say. I rarely invoke any Gordons.

The distinctiveness of our voice lays visible to others and yet we are oft-times unaware of it.

We might be perplexed by the words we do not understand but think little of those we do. We might have the ambition to sound like someone famous we’ve read, and realise we never will. I wonder if my journalist friend knows that Gabriel García Márquez was a brilliant journalist, though terrible at spelling

She listens to her language. During her voice messages, she frequently pauses to ponder which of a few words would be the most apt for her particular phrase. I’ve sat in awe, listening as she muses over regional distinctions between tiny populations in the 5-million-strong country of Finland. Her awareness of language, of identity, of the power of words, is a treasure.

Maybe though, she has no idea how special what she does is.

Without a room of one’s own (but writing anyway)

If you’re going to work, work; if you’re going to play, play.
Padova, May, 2018.

If you want something done, ask a busy person.

Or, in the case of Anders Ericsson, who needed subjects to stick with his gruelling number memorisation scheme and test his hypothesis about deliberate practice, choose people who have learnt to stick with hard-work.

… I made it a point to recruit only subjects who had trained extensively as athletes, dancers, musicians, or singers. None of them ever quit on me.

Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

A focused work ethic isn’t something you can turn on with mere good intention. It takes skill to persist and skills must be developed.

As I write, I’m stationed in the Mother’s study

It’s a Saturday morning and I’ve told my family I’m going to be writing here from 10 until 12. My family are generous, including in their support for my writing, and agreed, with enthusiasm, to allow me this time, alone, in the quiet, to write.

In theory at least

My sister has come to visit and is writing a letter to her plumber. Our enthusiastic Mother is supporting her with suggestions of wording, advice (always make sure you are specific about what preparation means) and scheduling. They grab the calendar and start working out when the plumber would be best installing the bathtub.

The letter requires a template, because letter writing is not a run of the mill activity, and then printing, signing, scanning and sending. Therefore, it is twenty past ten by the time I have chased the Mother out of the room.

I look at the screen and take a calming breath

It’s not a situation unique to me. Finding time to concentrate and work on those things requiring deliberate practice, like playing the piano, is difficult. Especially when you live with other people. Routine and closed doors help, but since I live out of a suitcase, they can be difficult to come by.

We can complain about distractions

Pigeons flutter across the field opposite. However, I’m not sure the real problem is the distractions themselves. I am not a helpless child waiting until my family are asleep to have quiet to do her homework. My problem is the absence of ferociousness when it comes to dedicating, and protecting, the time I set aside for my work. I’m the one who’s responsible.

Yes, I’m at risk of sounding lecture-y, as my sister would say.

Perhaps my voice here gives away my insecurity

I want to be dedicated to the few things that matter most to me, but sometimes it’s hard to dispel the distractions. I can put my phone in a drawer and hide from social media. My phone is a tool. People present a trickier challenge. What can I do about my mother popping in to ask if I can take her to her appointment next Wednesday? Or popping into the study to tell my sister (who’s now working at the father’s desk) our father is on his way home? They’re going to brew some beer together.

When my mother is happy and smiling, she uses her sweet little sing-song voice and adds a sugary sorry to each interruption.  How is it possible to be angry with her when she’s being adorable? How can I muster up my ferociousness and declare that I need quiet when I’m sitting in her chair, at her desk, with a tummy full of her cooking? It’s impossible.

I roll my eyes and smile; I must keep trying.

I find thinking about deliberate practice as a mindset helps

For me, it comes down to deliberate choice. Am I reacting to the many factors around me? Is the urgency of a few tasks dominating my mind? Or am I making careful choices about how I spend my time? If I let myself roll with my surroundings, if I forget to pause and prioritise, then discover I haven’t painted or written anything in a while.

What’s more, I end up tired. This spirals: I sleep too few hours, don’t run or cycle, forget to meditate and find I can no longer touch my toes because I haven’t been doing yoga. The excuses roll in, I say I’ve been too busy but this reality is I haven’t been ferocious enough about protecting my priorities.

I used to object to time plans

The rigidity goes against my nature. I was much more comfortable with imagining I’d get things done in a gentle spontaneous manner. This was a convenient lie to tell myself. My getting things done looked like a deadline and a mighty rush. It did not feel good and often left me feeling unsatisfied with the work I had accomplished.

I could do it, because I could rely on my quick brains to solve any last-minute issues and, my tongue, if necessary, to talk me out of problems. This is like people who don’t sleep much saying they can function with less sleep between yawns. Progress might get made but how do we feel about it?

Furthermore, I used to think planning took too much effort

And as it was inevitable the plans would fail, they were pretty much pointless.

But I got frustrated by my lack of good feeling about my achievement. Not planning was resulting in an erratic output of work which runs contrary to my belief that consistency is essential. You can’t run a marathon if you only run when you’re in the mood. And you cannot complete a novel if you’re not sitting down to write when the house is silent.

In my schedule, I marked off the hours already committed to something or other with coloured pencils and then looked at what was left.  What I noticed about my plans was how little time I had to write. Furthermore, once I started looking at the time set aside to writing, I realized most of it was spent doing random admin tasks. Useful things to be sure, but not what I had intended.

At which point, I took a Sunday and I marked out a whole long stretch for writing

I designed the day to support my writing rather than trying to fit the writing around what was already in my day. And it was like falling in love with the art all over again. So I edited work I’d been doing and found I had the time to think about the wording. I wasn’t in a rush. I wasn’t contemplating the bus timetable or my to-do list. Instead, I’d submerged in the activity I wanted most to be doing and was loving it. I felt I could even do it well.

Which is why I read about Anders Ericsson’s research

He’s fascinated by people who excel, and I’d like to excel.

I’m trying to build my routines through awareness of what I’ve now learnt. People excel through conscious determination. They need a willingness to keep at the minute details. Not in a half-minded way, but with the honed skill of keeping at it. Ericsson thinks of this essential commitment as a skill, something it takes time to develop. It’s a skill found in athletes and serious musicians and, I hope, to be developing in me.

Oh and it’s all a lie anyway. I have a room of my own here; I just don’t have a chair.

Learning to outline (and evaluate that outline)

By Posted on Location: 4min read
Results or excuses: getting up early as planned
Results or excuses: I had to plan ahead and set the alarm to get up early enough to have a final glimpse of Murcia. I wandered through the city for an hour before going to have breakfast at one of the earlier opening bakeries.
May, 2019.

Mark Twain said, “If I had more time, I would write a shorter letter.”

And Blaise Pascal wrote, “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” Which translates as, “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

And various other people at various other times said something similar. And it’s all bullshit.

It’s an excuse.

What it means is that the writers leapt right in

They felt rushed and therefore didn’t pause to think about what it was they were going to write before they wrote it. Long-winded writing (which is something I excel at) comes from poor planning.

I have been studying writing now for a while, and the biggest factor contributing to long-windedness, without doubt, is in how well I outline. In this brief article, I will write about my outlining review process, which does assume I have already created an outline.

Why do I care so much about avoiding bloated articles?

When I was voicing my distress at my article length getting out of hand someone asked why this was a problem. There are benefits to long articles, such as in appearing in search results, and many people find putting together a short article much easier than writing a long one. All this is irrelevant to me, I want to be able to sit down with the intention of writing 800 words, outline those 800 words, and come out with 800 words.

I want to be able to predict how much I need to write and how much time that’s going to take and get the prediction right.

So, when I’m outlining, I review my outline against my prediction

The question I first ask is have I chosen the right word count for the subject matter? If the outline suggests that the article is going to be too long, which is a frequent occurrence for me, I split the article into separate outlines there and then. Before I’ve written a sentence.

A quick look through an outline can give a good sense of whether it’s about to spiral out of control. If the points I’ve outlined are vague, it’s going to spiral. If I’m too emotional about what I’m writing, it’s going to spiral. If it’s a topic I lack confidence on, it’s going to spiral.

But how does one stop an article spiralling across too many pages?

The question I ask myself is whether each point marked out in the outline is going to require more than one paragraph to explain. An ideal paragraph contains a single idea which you develop within that paragraph. If my idea will overflow my paragraph, then I need to break that idea down into its respective points at the outlining stage.

If you’ve got readers on mobile devices, then you might feel compelled to create super short paragraphs

Personally, I love long sentences and long paragraphs (assuming they are eloquently punctuated). I love beautiful writing. But on my phone, lengthy blocks of text are more challenging to consume. To keep my paragraphs short, I break-up some of the longer paragraphs and excessive sentences during my edit.

You’ll learn from practice how long your paragraphs tend to be. And from this, you can approximate how many paragraphs you need for your desired word count.

Outlines might feel restrictive – you may instead believe writing should be a free activity

Ideas should pop out at great, fabled moments of inspiration. Words should fly from your fingertips in a natural progression. I don’t disagree. This is exactly how I write my diary, it’s how I write when I’m doing writing-therapy, it’s how I first put story ideas to paper. Some of my best ideas and phrases come like this. But the gods forbid that I edit these ideas as they appeared in their raw form on the page. I’d lose days to it. I have lost days to it. Free-writing is great when you don’t have to then edit.

But what I’m trying to do it learn how to create consistent, strong content

One of the Mother’s phrases that she walloped into my head is that in life you have a choice between results and excuses. Not having enough time to write a short letter (i.e. not planning what it is you want to say) is an excuse.

It’s also inconsiderate to the reader. We’re all under constant information bombardment as it is. If you have something to say that’s worth someone else taking their precious time to listen to, presumably it’s also worth planning.

After all, if we´re being honest, to plan and write a short letter takes a whole lot less time than to write and edit a long one.

Hiding my truths within a fiction based on a truth

Sailing along the Nile… in a land of make believe.

At dinner last night* the father had all these questions about my novel. That’s my third novel for anyone who’s keeping count (probably only my father), which is a prequel to my second novel (which currently exists as two chapters – the first and the last – but was once 100,000 words long) and is nothing to do with my first novel which once had a youth orchestra play a piece composed for it. None of these novels is published of course. None of them have ever got to a point where anyone who isn’t my father might believe them finished.

This third novel is not quite like anything that I’ve written before.

It’s not like the first novel

The first novel was set in space. It was told through the eyes of a journalist because I was trying to get some space between me and my characters. I named my protagonist after a girl I’d disliked in primary school and made her a very reluctant hero. She spent the first half of the book trying not to be involved with the story line. The real main character was of course an intergalactic princess. My sister suggested that maybe she was too rebelious.

The father – my number one fan – read the book in tears on a transatlantic flight, and although he might well now deny it, had one critique. He said it lacked sex.

He was right

So much of human motivation stems from our need to have romantic relationships, or at least get a physical kick from being with someone. However, and this is quite a large however, sex is hard to write into a book at a stage in your life when you haven’t ever had a real boyfriend. And I don’t mean real as in not imaginary, I mean real in this context as someone you have a relationship with and don’t just label with the word because it’s convenient when it comes to surviving the hostile world of the school playground.

For the second book I came back down to Earth

I wrote it in my final year at university when I ought to have been mathematically modelling solar flares. It’s set in Ancient Egypt. My father read it of course. He loved it. He thought that I should quickly get it finished, published and make lots of money from it. He has great faith in my writing. (He’s an excellent father and amateur literary critic.) And at least that was my impression of his opinion. The sex, however, he said made him uncomfortable.

You really can’t win when you’re a daughter writing a book read by your father but I believe it serves him right for embarrassing me the first novel round.

So, the third book

I haven’t let my father read it. In fact, I have been avoiding writing it. When I’m writing a novel I get consumed by it. My mindneeds a huge amount of space to write, and it hasn’t exactly felt spacious recently.

It’s often the getting started that’s hard, and not because I have writer’s block – that thing is alien to me thank goodness – but because to write it I have to read it and to read it means I’m confronted by what I’ve written. And it’s not just a case of lacking self-confidence.

I’ve tended to pour myself into writing it at points over the last couple of years where my mind has desperately needed to expel thoughts and feelings but was too ashamed to put them straight into my diary. This does not lead to a tidy, structured novel, and restructuring and cutting has been an ordeal. That said, those horrible moments, now rewritten, make up the backbone of the novel I wanted to write  and proved uncuttable.

To write the third book I had to switch to the third person. I couldn’t write in the first person. I couldn’t put myself though such an agony. And all the things I wanted to write, I couldn’t have made happen to one character. I feel it’s much too much feeling to believe from one character, even if all the character’s feelings do in fact stem from me.

And the sex? Well. Not too surprisingly I’m not currently the biggest fan of sex. Although since it’s a book set in the royal courts in Ancient Egypt sex is hardly something I can just skip. I’m sure there were some asexual people in Ancient Egypt, but this isn’t a novel about them.

At dinner last night the father kept asking when he gets to read it

I read it myself at the beginning of this week and have been writing it obsessively ever since. He’s noticed and become excited that it may, finally, be finished. Meanwhile I keep wondering what he’s going to think of it all. I wince when I’m reading it, and I wrote it. I know what’s coming up.

But one of those cliche phrases points out that you should write what you know, and I’ve come to know things I would’t want to read. And yet maybe the reason I write this novel and these characters is because they can house much stuff that people shy away from, yet make it a bit more palatable. It’s a story about people keeping secrets and holding themselves in shame. It’s a book about not talking, not trusting, and the power of one human being over another.

It’s not autobiographical, yet it is a reflection of what I know.

And yet, all that ‘stuff’ is part of me. If it’s not seen, if these feeling aren’t recognised and accepted, then I’m not either. Which is why, eventually, I’ll have to let it be read.

*I wrote this post a week or so ago.

Do you write, and if so, why?

Prove yourself wrong with a diary

By Posted on Location: 4min read
writing, diaries and books
There is magic in the written word.
Outdoor library, Lljubliana, Slovenia, 2014

I keep a diary. Like everything else in my life right now, my habit of writing in it does not obey a regular pattern. It’s not an eloquent journal of events and intelligent observations. It’s a raw first draft bashed into being as I process my emotions. It consists of traditional diary entries, less traditional letters, quotes I’ve enjoyed, violent rants, considered plans, lists and maybe slightly intrusive observations of strangers made on trains, planes and from the corners of coffee shops. This makes it the closest I’ve got to an honest reflection of how I actually think.

Primarily, I keep this notebook because it allows me to experiment with words and and ideas on a page which magically enhances my clarity of thought. An unexpected benefit however has recently emerged: my diary entries are more accurate than my memory.

The memory that lies

Recently, a friend told me (and it was implied by another) that I had approached a particular situation with a less than ideal attitude. Because such an attitude matches with my known past behaviours I didn’t question it. I absorbed the criticism and let it sink in. I chastised myself for repeating the same mistakes as I have time and time before. I felt guilty and that I was making a bad situation worse by my childish and selfish ways. Was this weakness becoming more prominent with time or was I just becoming more aware of it. In either case, how did I overcome it. I constructed a reading list and an action plan.

When, later, I flicked back through my diary, I read my description of my emotions preceding and proceeding the event in question. It surprised me. No, stunned me. My fears, apprehensions, desires and other emotions contrasted with what had been assumed. Assumptions I’d unquestioningly believed. My attitude had been both much more complex and appropriate.

My memory was wrong. My friends assumptions were wrong. Decisions were being made on faulty data.

Now a wise friend questioned whether or not I perhaps lie to my diary. This is a good question asked by a good scientist. As far as I’m aware though, whilst I might omit details because I’m not yet ready to write about them, I don’t outright lie. If I write ‘I had a great day today’ I believed what I wrote at the time I wrote it.

The uncomfortable necessity of assumptions

No understanding can be made without assumptions but there’s a point when we stop recognising assumptions as assumptions and start thinking of them as facts. I’m probably guiltier of this than most people. Finding patterns is an obsession. I want to understand the story. However, making assumptions based on out-dated presumptions about someone else’s motivations is damaging. It stops us asking the question of what’s really going on here.

Assumptions are necessary if we’re going to imagine the stories that allow us to empathise with one another. I’m all for empathy, but the most important piece of the empathy puzzle, as I see it, is acknowledging that our feet don’t fit someone elses shoes. My sister’s feet are similar enough that we typically wear the same size shoes. Sometimes I use those squidgy insoles that stop your feet aching if you’re strutting around in heels for a long time, but other times my sister complains that I stretch them. My experience walking in her shoes is very much different to her experience walking in the same shoes.

On discussing how to approach a study of a subjective experience such as happiness, psychologist Daniel Todd Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness states, “In short, if we adhere to the standard of perfection in all our endeavours, we are left with nothing but mathematics and the White Album.” Therefore, we can expect to make some mistakes from time to time about others.

The future of the diary

Yet what I believed I’d felt like and the words I chosen to describe the experience as it was happening to me were so astoundingly different. This experience has shaken me. It threw me into a Socrates feeling of I know I know nothing. If I know so little about how I felt a mere two months ago, how can I make decisions based on what I thought I felt years ago?

Why does it happen? My hypothesis is that I’m most susceptible to remembering my emotions wrong when I am insecure about how I feel. In other words, when there’s a contrast between what I think I should feel and what I actually feel. This is particularly acute when the behaviours/motivation relate to my recognised weaknesses.

In hindsight, I’m likely to label my memories as selfish, manipulative, bossy, controlling or clinging because I’m overly fearful of such descriptions. In the moment, I’m going to feel independent, clever, determined, organised or attentive.

Unwinding these practices is an impossible task, but maybe using my diary is a start.

I must stop this silliness and start being curious about what’s actually going on in my mind. What do I actually believe? Repeating mistakes of the past isn’t inevitable. Maybe actually I’ve learnt more than I give myself credit for, I just can’t see it.

The difficult part is believing in the change.

Have you tried anything similar?