Where I write (And why it matters)

By Posted on Location: 5min read
Where I write

Where I write today

The bright Spanish sun that forces me to wear the children’s factor 50 sun cream on my face when I leave the house, and which has made the left side of my legs darken a little from where I sit on the balcony to read but has so far been ineffective on the right side which typically faces away from the glare, this sun is not present today.

Instead, I sit inside, on my sofa, in my room below the main house, peeping out from behind barred windows, past the palm tree that stands in the front garden and a lamp post which feels it could belong in Narnia. Most days, I can see the tops of the mountains, and a statue of Jesus with his arms outspread as if he were blessing the village in the valley below, but today the trees of the hillside hide behind the mist. It might be May in Spain, but the rain is Welsh-like, moving left to right across my window in great sheets like a GCSE textbook diagram of a sound wave.

To compensate, I’ve wrapped myself in a huge thick fleecy blanket and nestled within the cushions. There are four, two for this sofa, two for the bed with elephants embroidered on them in what looks like an Indian design which I can’t help thinking doesn’t fit with their pastel yellow and purple colours. It’s a fabric haven in a room without carpets or curtains.

Pulled up, right against the sofa is a little black metal table, which rocks precariously as I type. I mustn’t stand too quickly or my mug of tea, made using a microwave and UHT milk, will splash and end up flooding the floor, again.

The temporary nature of the situation is further exaggerated by the music playing out of the tiny tinny speakers on my phone. Spotify has decided I’m Spanish and its recommendations are for playlists of mostly Spanish songs. Occasionally something familiar pops on and my memories drag me to a different place, a club in my home town when I was eighteen, sunbathing in the garden at university whilst mentally chastising myself for not revising, or an argument about my distinctly bland taste in music with a friend who’s own taste involves pirate songs.

Bland music though suits me when I write. Anything too rich can be too much of a distraction and writing requires my concentration. It does not involve hoisting the sail on the Jolly Roger.

The importance of variety

The best advice on writing is always to write more and read more. But is it really all that simple? I’m reading How We Learn by Benedict Carey.  It’s a book I wish I’d read before doing a degree, for it has taught me that I never learnt how to learn efficiently. Surprise, surprise but practice, practice, practice isn’t the quickest way to get better at a task. And almost more startling, it’s better not to have a single dedicated quiet study space. Variety promotes learning too.

The idea runs like this. If you study the same material in multiple environments, with different background noises, if you’re mixing up working inside and outside, switch between the bedroom, the study, the dining room table and the coffee shop, you’re somehow providing your brain with more context to the information, which makes finding a way back to it easier. Or at least according to my understanding of Carey’s analysis of the scientific studies on the effect of context.

The same goes for mood. Only studying when you are in a single mood limits the moods that your brain associates with that information. Cleverly they tested this with people who are bipolar and people who were under the influence of mind-altering drugs. Mock exams are important because they train your brain to work in the environment in which you’ll have to regurgitate the same information. Laying on the beach after months of stressed revising and exams, your brain probably still contains the same information, but without the cue of mood struggles to know where it went.

A tangent on sleep

I wonder if the idea can be transferred to sleep. Do people who regularly switch beds have an easier time finding the path to content sleep in a new environment?

There are few places I struggle to sleep. It’s not that silence and comfort aren’t extremely valuable to me, but that their absence doesn’t prevent me resting. For years I slept to the not quite audible drown of Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter in the room next door. I hate sleeping with music on, but sometimes it’s not worth the argument to get it turned off. (Although I admit there is occasionally some music or radio adverts are too aggravating for even me.) I have slept soundly in tents beside loud and drunken festivities and in the centre of London with sirens sounding all times of the night. Hostel rooms aren’t my favourite but their cheap beds and the sound of cheerful chatter at 3am have never stopped me sleeping.

Ideally I sleep in silence on my super soft foam covered mattress snuggled under my own cosy warm duvet. Here in Spain I play a game with the blanket and the window, trying to gauge whether it is going to be a warm night or a cold night. Tonight, will surely be cold after all this rain, but it is a continuous guessing game.

Tomorrow

I switch beds and desks with ease. Travel forces me to keep adapting, for I must write and sleep anywhere. When the children are at school I’ll move my computer out to the dining room, or upstairs to the living room sofa or, should that bright Spanish sun change its mind, I’ll be out in the balcony frantically scribbling into my notebook or down on the high street beneath the parasol of a little coffee shop. And just a few weeks ago, I’d never seen any of these places, and in a few weeks time I’ll take my last look at them. Where I write changes, and that, I hope, gives the end product a little more richness.

‘Just arrived’ travel anxieties…

…and an irrational battle with the contents of the suitcase, in which there was no clear champion

Street art, Malaga, Spain
Street art. Malaga 2016.

Time to take a deep breath.

I’m many miles from where I woke up this morning. After a bout of being home in England, and feeling comfortable in my surroundings, I find myself face to face with a large mirror I’ve never seen before reflecting back a room which until a couple of hours ago, I’d never entered.

The clothes are the same. They’re flung haphazardly across an unfamiliar bed as if war broke out of the suitcase. It’s the electric plug converter’s fault. It was hiding. Then it took me so long to find the light switch I started to worry I was going mad.

What sort of room has its only light switch nowhere near the door?

Part of my grouchiness is a lack of sleep. It’s very rare I cannot sleep, but the night before I fly it’s guaranteed. I keep on waking and prodding my phone to see the clock, paranoid that I’m going to miss my flight. You would have thought with the amount of flying I’ve done recently I’d get over this.

It’s ironic that the time I came closest to missing the flight I actually arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. So much time that I treated my sister to a proper breakfast. We relaxed, started chatting about our plans and lo and behold when we finally thought to look at the screen our flight to Vienna was being boarded.

None of my many alarms failed me this morning, but it was still dark and cold outside all the same and I still awoke, worrying, many times throughout the night.

It’s hard to remember that worry is entirely internally generated and unnecessary once when there’s a multitude of different alarms on different devices all set.

Arriving in Malaga, making sure the Internet works on my phone, finding an ATM and cursing as it’s stingy about the ratio of paper to Euros was all fine.

As a side note, I listened to a podcast the other day that pointed out that just because you arrive at an airport you don’t have to rush through it, you can sit down and catch your breath for a while. You don’t have to leap right into the stream of people amassed outside the arrival hall. I consider this wise advice.

I was also fine getting the bus and even in hopping off at the right stop. A version of ‘fine’ from the newer version of the Italian Job.

John Bridger: Fine? You know what “fine” stands for, don’t you?

Charlie Croker:  Yeah, unfortunately.

JB: Freaked out…

CC: Insecure…

JB: Neurotic…

CC: And Emotional.

JB: You see those columns behind you?

CC: What about them?

JB: That’s where they used to string up thieves who felt fine.

CC: After you.

The Italian Job

A few hours later I’m in a different state of mind

The most important stuff has been extracted from the suitcase. I’ve had a cup of tea (there’s a packet of PG Tips here?) wandered outside – without following the commands of an electronic map around each corner or dragging my suitcase behind me.  I find a statue of a friendly chap playing what looks to me like a tambourine. He seems ever so jolly.

chap playing tamborine, Malaga
Tambourine man. Malaga 2016

It feels like someone caring put together this place. Someone with an eye for detail. There are random bits of coloured tiles mashed together. It is beautiful. Floral decorations accentuate balconies and I can’t help but think that Cairo could learn a lot from the brightly coloured shutters.

I like shutters. Places with sunshine have shutters. It’s a promising sign.

Big paintings on public walls draw your eye. But so do the small flourishes on signs and doorways. Minor amusements, like the clinic for bicycles amuse me. Cambridge has one of these and both the one here and the one there have half a bicycle stuck up on the wall. Spain isn’t that far away really.

Picasso was born here

I’m excited to step outside with my sketchbook and grateful for my paints. But not tonight.

I’m feeling happier by the time I’ve bought pasta. I shocked myself by understanding that the woman at the till was asking if I wanted a carrier bag ‘bolsa’, because it’s so similar to the Italian ‘borsa’, even without her pointing or holding out a bag (yes I know it’s a guessable question at the check-out, but still, you’ve got to appreciate the little achievements).

My spoken Spanish is non-existent, but how much I can read is a pleasant surprise. Context of course is everything.

I buy vegetables in the greengrocers

I stare at the courgette and the cucumber wondering which is which before making a random choice. I get back to the apartment in time to Skype my sister and tell her I’m well. I discover it is indeed a courgette as I hoped.

This span of travelling comes with a purpose. I’m in the city centre. My room is spacious, indeed is contains a substantive desk at which I now sit and a double bed where I shall sleep. I have books, my notebooks and a clear plan for writing. To find restaurants and bars, or a plaza with sculptures, benches and coffee shops takes no more than a minute or two, it’s all just outside my front door.

Malaga is a different colour to England

More tints than tones. Travel pours images and characters into my imagination, without which there would be no stories begging to be written. A woman harvesting herbs from her balcony. A child with his whole body pressed up against a glass pyramid twice his height, staring down through it into the Roman remains below the street.

What’s more, I’m not rushed. I’ve got plenty of time to explore my surroundings, and plenty of time to sit still.

Sitting still is important too

It’s easy to talk about writing without actually putting a pen to paper, or to put a pen to paper and be prolific with the word count but stingy with the produce or quality. Well-meaning isn’t enough in practice. You can be well-meaning and still wreak havoc.

If you can’t read what I write, it doesn’t count

My routine is broken. I’m here, free, and that means there can be no excuses and no complaints. I’ve got pages and pages of draft material that deserves a second look. My job here is to refine it and learn something from it. There’s space in my mind. Everything slows down to accommodate this shift of pace and I stare around me with wonder.

The slower pace suits my writing.

The to-do list doesn’t matter.

“Be the weirdo who dares to enjoy.”

I’m reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s a book about creativity and it’s unscientific to say the least.

It’s the self-help book like Eat, Pray, Love isn’t.

As a quick detour, it’s probably worth mentioning Gilbert’s crazy success. I’m always uncertain how to speak about Eat, Pray, Love. It’s a book that’s easy to label, and easy to complain about. It’s also brilliant marketing. It’s divisive. Some people resonate with it as a story of a woman coming to terms with herself after a divorce. With others it’s the courage to chase a dream. Others it’s a portrayal of privilege and self-absorption.

For me it’s a story about decision making.

Whether you see it as a curse or a delight, Eat, Pray, Love’s spell changes how you see Elizabeth Gilbert’s other works. I gave a sceptic my copy of The Signature of All Things to read as a dare and to make a point. My friend admitted surprise. Big Magic however, where some of the ideas are about as believable as fairy dust, is unapologetically not serious literature.

It’s a self-help book with a pink cover and no references in the back.

It talks about belief.

So I wrote it off. I’m a serious person, and thoroughly educated in the art of scientific thinking.

Then I was recommended and then lent it, by a physicist.

So I started reading, and reached the section called ‘enchantment’ which is a little too fanciful for my tastes, but the writing was pretty, at times funny and immensely easy to absorb, so I persisted. The book felt like a guilty pleasure. Something I was aware that people more intelligent than me might roll their eyes at, which would feel like they were mocking me for my reading choices and make me question my taste.

Insecurities abound. I neither need permission nor validation. Which is exactly what the book is actually about. It’s the story of owning the freedom to make what you want to make and loving it regardless. It’s a simple message and maybe it’s easy to mock the simplicity or naivety of it.

What’s more, I can’t help but link it in my mind to Murakami’s What I Think About When I Think About Running. Both are books about belief and perseverance and a pure and healthy love of writing.

Turns out I was surprised after all.

What books have you judged by the cover and been pleasantly surprised by?

The Highly Conventional, Unconventional Path To Becoming A Writer

Why write a blog? Why write at all?

Battling grammar, learning how to use a semi-colon and spell ‘necessary’ with one collar and two sleeves, is a time-consuming business.

What’s more, it’s never-ending. However much you write, there will always more you can do. It’s a skill that can never truly be obtained, and for some reason, rather than finding that threatening, to me, it’s reassuring.

When you write, you share a bit of yourself. Publishing your thoughts and feelings to the world is a vulnerable position to put yourself in. But yet people do it with an unrelenting obsession.

Why write at all?

I have no sensible answer for this question. Instead I can only describe how the germ of writing grew within me.

In the beginning was time

It was September and I was thirteen. Of course I’d written before that, short stories and such like as children do, but in the September when I was thirteen I was finally gifted an extensive amount of free time with nobody to tell me what to do.

I wrote in blue fountain pen on white A4 printer paper using a handmade line-guide and stripy paper-clips.

That year I devoured three fountain pens, and filled a drawer with my words. I didn’t know what I was doing. I picked up notebooks and occasionally wrote in them too, but this was harder because I was scared of getting notebook writing wrong. Printer paper was plentiful and disposable.

Sometimes I kept a diary, but I’ve never been great at keeping a diary. Why it is that a diary filled with embarrassing white spaces is more tragic than a diary filled with embarrassing truths?

Sometimes I wrote about someone else’s life, often I wrote about my own, but with the added excitement of an alien abduction or the end of the world.

And then came the words

In school we wrote a story called Escape from Kraznir. A fantasy adventure inspired by Lord of the Rings. We were provided with an outline of where each chapter should be set, but the writing was all our own. Being a school project, it had to be finished and submitted.

Writing ‘the end’ was a major achievement.

Later, I learnt Microsoft Word had a word count. Over the Christmas I turned 16, I wrote 20,000 words. Maybe my parents thought I was revising for exams?

I flitted between writing on the computer and writing by hand. I gave up the fountain pens as they couldn’t cope with my aggressive hand and switched to a resilient black ballpoint pen.

I started wondering how much I’d have to write to really have a novel. I imagined hundreds of thousands of words. From the internet, I concluded 80,000. Easy. I stopped starting a new piece of writing every time I sat down and instead focused on what I was sure would be my novel.

The contradiction of education

School was as separate in my mind as the futuristic lands I wrote about. I aced my GCSEs and slid into sixth-form with ease. Maths and physics were where I excelled, they were filled with mysteries and offered problems that could be solved. I wanted to understand the solutions and knew that maths wasn’t something to fear, but was something beautiful. I loved my father’s tales of solving real life problems with calculations.

Maths can make a measurable difference.

With English I never knew what success looked like. Some nonsense about Miss Havisham’s depression.

There was no expectation that what I wrote would be read. No connection in my mind between the English we studied at school and the writing I kept hidden in the back of my cupboard. All I’d done was take childhood games and as everyone else grew up I continued playing them on my own, through the written word.

Like switching from reading out loud to reading  in your head.

And from reading to a parent, to reading with a torch beneath your duvet.

The power of supportive readers

The Midget was the first person to read my stories. This is unsurprising as she had been my original Watson. She found it amusing,  and said it was all rather rebellious. At 40,000 words the parents were given a copy to read. This was partly to justify the volume of printing they were paying for, it was also because I was slowly transitioning from solitary writing to wanting someone else to share it with.

Which was when I first decided that I ought to learn to write proper.

And is why, over the weeks of my A-level exams, I was also writing assignments for an Open University course on writing fiction.

To put all this in perspective. I told the Mother that the Open University course deadlines were two weeks after they actually were. This is the biggest lie I’ve ever told. I imagine I’m going to get a phone call from the Mother after publishing this.

Why I publish my writing on a blog

I started by reading blogs on writing fiction. Authors, and wannabe authors, have a lot to say on the art of writing. There’s a lot of people out there who are working really hard to learn to write. They, like you and me, crave feedback and appreciation for their efforts.

They’ve got some amazing advice.  Writers blog about the struggles of writing. Literary agents blog about the struggles they witness writers having.  There’s fan-fiction writers, poets, and grammar know-it-alls who will tell you how to use a semi-colon. Traditional published authors and self-published authors. Many people adore writing.

I was amazed by all of them.

And suddenly I was no longer writing alone.

The gap between my writing and writing that’s smooth enough to read fluently still existed, but I knew how to improve.

I timidly began asking for help and started this blog to join them.

How I got paid to blog

It shouldn’t have been surprising that after three years studying physics, and with two drafted novels, I still had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I imagine the education system, at least in England, is really great if you’re the sort of person who works in a linear fashion. But that’s not me.

I graduated and a bit of a wobble ensued. I wasn’t a writer because I wasn’t a good writer. I wasn’t a physicist because I failed to care enough.

The careers advisor despaired and suggested counselling – I’m not joking.

Eventually, after much pacing, driving to Naples and back and a lot of writing, I got a job in marketing. They wanted someone who would be great at website analytics and not daunted by a little HTML. I wanted to keep writing. It seemed like a great compromise.

What’s more, it meant I could also live near the man I love.

When real life practice really counts

A Canadian woman sat beside me in the office. I was immediately in awe. She had a thorough education in creative writing. She could proofread, with fancy marks, in different styles and to the requirements of different continents. She was also tasked with editing what wrote and making it publishable on a corporate blog.

What’s more, she had written a novel, self-published it and was making money from it.

Time passed. I started debates about Oxford commas, and judged magazines who wanted me to buy advertising from them on whether their sales representatives could punctuate.

I became the one who did the editing.

Knowing about content marketing became an obsession. I read books on writing. I received, devoured and critiqued email newsletters and became an advertising critic. I even listened to podcasts.

I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote.

And battled this awful literary constipation where I write a hell of a lot and struggle to hit publish.

The Writer

I write every day. I’ve seen my work in print, I’ve seen it online. I’ve seen it with my own name, and I’ve seen it without.

I am a writer. A fact which would have astounded me when I graduated.

Which is something to remember when you’re dreaming your own dreams.

Writing Resources: The Books That Taught Me To Write

[Last updated: 09/11/2015]

Copywriter, storyteller, blogger. Many of the same principles apply, regardless of which angle you’re writing from.

Learning to write is tricky. Good writing is subjective. What one person loves, another detests. I set off on this journey hoping to develop good writing, but I’ve found this original goal is not specific enough.

In copywriting – writing to inspire action – there’s a clear goal to each piece of writing. When it comes to stories, the goal might be to evoke empathy, or demonstrate the value of a certain perspective, or persuade the reader to reconsider their own worldview.

Measuring how effective a piece of writing is, especially away from hardcore marketing, is difficult. Asking for feedback when you’re an insecure dreamer is daunting. When we pluck up the courage to do so, it’s often to be disappointed by the vagueness of the guidance we receive.

‘It’s very you’ means what exactly?

Nothing has improved my writing more than genuine feedback, and nothing has been as distracting for its development. I keep on aggressively pushing for quality. Seeking out and engaging feedback is crucial, but between conversations with those brave and through enough to be trusted to edit your words, reading a few books on regular writing hiccups helps too.

The two that I shan’t let you borrow

1 – Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

Love it; hate it.

Novel writing is overwhelming. When you’re hunting answers as to how to write, you come across a lot of details on the art of firing up your imagination, crafting in-depth characters and developing an over arching plot which changes the protagonist. What is often missed out is how you actually pull it all together.

Larry Brooks suggests ‘six competencies’, the fundamental building blocks of writing a story: theme, conflict, character, scenes, voice. What I learnt from reading his book is applicable to writing this blog and content marketing too. It’s about writing with purpose.

What Larry tells us is that thrashing around hoping something is going to work out won’t work. What I know from actually writing is that without a bit of thrashing around my imagination remains sedate. Reality requires a balance between the plotter and the ‘pantser’.

Reading Story Engineering, I discovered that whilst there’s nothing wrong with thrashing, it’s slow. Think of trying to swim the length of a pool. Technique trumps power.

So why the hate? The way Larry writes. That condescending…

Have you ever watched the Ted Talk by another Larry, Larry Smith, on why you will fail to have a great career? Larry King makes me feel the same way as Larry Smith does. He makes me need to take a deep breath. I’ve put the book down in frustration many a time, and yet I can’t help thinking that if only I submitted to the patronising wisdom then maybe I’d actually write something worth reading.

Maybe, the frustration is merely my fear. Maybe I despise Larry King because he calls out my failings.

Story Engineering stays close to my keyboard. It’s the book I go back to when I’m struggling with a scene or what I’m writing feels like clay. It’s not a book you may borrow, but if you want to write a novel, and your willing to work hard, rather than simply spiel out words all dream-like, then it’s the first book I’d recommend.

2 – Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation by John Seeley

This book is my grammar guru. Its tiny, but its explanations are the clearest I’ve come across. Every time I feel a bit stupid, or someone points out a mistake that I’m not so sure is a mistake, I go to this book. It doesn’t confuse, like so much grammar advice, it provides clarity.

The other books on writing I’ve read

(These books are in no particular order.)

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Browne and Dave King

Second hand, of unknown origin.

Works best read front cover to back cover. The tone of the helpful advice was neither condescending, nor lecturing, which I found refreshing.

Not a particularly memorable read.

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark

I’ve no idea where this book came from either – it’s also second-hand.

You could quite happily read a chapter a day and learn one lesson at a time. I read it in the bath. Full of good ideas and thoughts, but it’s not got enough of its own character to be a book I feel overly compelled to keep.

You Can Write Children’s Books by Tracey E. Dils

The Mother bought me this book. I guess this means she thinks I should try writing children’s fiction.

It’s a fluid read. You’d expect a level of simplicity perhaps from a children’s writer. I’d recommend it if you’re interested in writing children’s books. My criticism is that it could have gone into more depth in the sections devoted to middle grade and young adult fiction. Separate chapters with more in-depth information for these separate age ranges would be useful.

I keep it for every now and again when I go back to playing writing fairy-tales.

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

I read this book twice. Both times I borrowed it from the library (Warwick).

Why is it so good? Because it’s like the friend sat on your bed sharing chocolate and drinking tea whilst telling you their honest opinion. Reading the book this is how I hear Betsy Lerner’s voice. You believe what she says. You trust her, you want her to like you – you feel she’s selective though about who she does like – and that’s somehow inspiring.

Betsy Lerner’s blog is a giggle.

You are a Writer by Jeff Goins

Read as an eBook.

My favourite piece of Jeff Goins’ writing is actually his Wrecked Manifesto, from which I keep this lovely quote (not actually of Jeff Goins) which is the answers the question ‘What should I do with my life?’.

Step one. Stop pretending we’re all on the same staircase. – Po Bronson

That said, I enjoyed You are a Writer. Jeff Goins’ writing I like, because of his honesty and humility, but occasionally it feels a little too preachy to be really lovable. Occasionally I read something he’s written and I’m wowed, other times I feel he’s holding back out of politeness. Or he’s trying too hard.

He’s the author on this list I’d be most interested in meeting in person. You can get a feel for his writing on his site, goinswriter.com. If you want to be a writer, he genuinely wants to encourage you to write.

Brilliant Business Writing: How to Inspire, Engage and Persuade Through Words by Neil Taylor

This was the book I borrowed from Newbury library when I first got a job in marketing. Confidence lacking, I was determined to do something about my English.

It’s an encouraging read. It gave me a foundation to stand on when I was discussing persuasive and formal writing in the office and it made me feel like I was getting my inadequacies under control.

I was surprised how good it was.

The Writing of Clear English: A Book for Students of Science and Technology by F. W. Westaway

Found in Oxfam.

Not a book I’d necessarily recommend for someone who wants to improve their writing, it’s a little old-fashioned, but it does make an entertaining read.

I’ve rambled a little about F. W. Westaway’s writing guidance already on the blog so I shan’t repeat myself here.

Books about reading

Because writing without reading is like driving a car without a road.

Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose

A present from the Grump, whose support is always appreciated. You don’t need to want to write to find this book useful, but if you do want to write widely, it’s a pleasant read that’s suggests different ways of looking at fiction.

For me, a physics graduate who hadn’t read critically since school GCSEs, it was the bridge towards my current interrogative style. It’s an accessible book. A confidence booster. It’s filled with examples and extracts that make you stop to think.

It comes with a suggested reading list in the back for the non-literature student to use to broaden their own reading, and I have it to thank for making me fall in love with Chekhov.

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

This book was one of the Mother’s holiday reads. She enjoyed it, and so I followed her lead.

It wasn’t a great book, there was no great learning i took from it, no great insight, but it was amusing. It was perfectly suited to laying out on the veranda of an Italian villa and made me feel rather smug about how much I read. It made me wonder about reading War and Peace. There was something in the tone of voice though that left me suspecting that Andy Miller and I wouldn’t make the best of friends.


So these are the books I’ve read on writing. Which book has had the biggest impact on how you write?

The Writing of Clear English: A Book for Students of Science and Technology by F. W. Westaway

In a local charity shop I found a pocket-size blue book, printed in 1926, written by a man called Frederic William Westaway and entitled ‘The Writing of Clear English: A Book for Students of Science and Technology’. The book’s age and the subject, writing for science, immediately made me want it.

The story of my book

On 22 July 1931 my copy of the book was stamped with ‘Marlborough College’, ‘Second hand book department’ in green ink. On this occasion it was bought by a C. B. Grimaldi. On the 24 October 1932, the book was again stamped with a ‘Marlborough College’, ‘Second hand book department’ stamp. This time in pink ink. Who it was sold to is unknown, but it went for 4/8, whatever that should mean.

The book was also owned by a D. S. Robinson, his or her name is scrawled in blue in on the inside cover.

I know little of the author Frederic William Westaway, but that he was, at one point in his life, one of His Majesty’s Inspectors of Secondary Schools.

Grammar and style

Unlike many grammar books, Westaway doesn’t simply give a list of rules to follow. Rules do exist, and they are stated, but the wonder of the book is the use of examples.

The following is an example of careless stopping:

“Rule, Britannia; Britannia rules the waves”.

There should be a comma after the second Britannia, and the indicative should be replaced by another imperative.

[I believe the use of double quotation marks is of its time. My modern copy of Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own, first published 1929, states in the introduction that quotation marks have been changed from the original double to single for clarity.]

Many more of Westaway’s examples come from academic papers, journals such as Nature, and daringly even other grammar books.

Each chapter begins with a couple of quotes about either writing or grammar – a number of which are from Shakespeare.

How to be a better writer

Anyway, Westaway’s advice on mastering the art of writing?

He who desires to write correctly must train himself to review with a critical eye what other people have written. To understand exactly what the different words in a sentence mean, what functions they discharge, what relation they bear to one another, and what the sentence as a whole signifies, all these things are indispensable.

To which end my suggestion would be Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose.