Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Finding the balance - the writer's 3Rs

What I’m calling the Writer’s 3Rs are like the standard 3Rs in two ways. First, they do not all begin with R, though they are closer than the originals. For Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic I’d like to substitute Reading, Research, and ‘Riting. Second, like the standard 3Rs they are all fundamentally important if we are to have any chance of success.


Put simply, you can’t be a writer without being a reader. Forget Disraeli’s famously vainglorious ‘When I want to read a good novel I write one’; if you are not reading the best of others you will not make the best of yourself. This is not to say you should imitate what others are doing, but good reading gives you the rhythm of good writing.

By ‘good reading’ I mean reading both as a noun and a verb. Don’t read trash except for learning what to avoid in your writing or for occasional entertainment. You only have so much reading time; spend it wisely with the great writers of all ages, and I mean read them - it’s not enough to have these books on your shelves like trophies, and the screen adaptations are no substitute for the real thing, as good as they might be on their own terms. I’ve had many conversations with people who claim (and believe) they have read this Austen or that Dickens only to discover on probing that they have merely seen the film or TV series.

Don’t think of reading great books as homework, as a necessary duty; they are great books because they contain within them tremendous stories with wonderful characters, and these are books that make you feel, think and grow. Don’t play safe by sticking only to the classics; some of your contemporaries are greats in the making, not all yet widely recognized.

As writers, our ‘good reading’ is also creative reading, dynamic reading, and often rereading because when the writer’s spell is first on us we might become so entranced we fail to interrogate and analyse. Again, rereading is not homework; it is a different level of pleasure with learning in it, and enhances our own art. Creative reading has us thinking more productively, sometimes explosively. It charges our Eureka moments.


I make the distinction between reading and research partly to indicate the more focused reading that purposeful research for a book requires, and partly as a reminder that research requires more than reading. It also means ‘being there’ in the footsteps of your characters, getting out to the locality of your plots; and listening. When J M Synge was writing The Shadow of the Glen he said that much of his inspiration came from overhearing the servant girls in the kitchen through a chink in the floor of the old Wicklow house where he was lodging at the time.

Sketch of JM Synge by John B Yeats

Good research is organised curiosity. The notes you accumulate along the way may eventually represent a forest, yet it will seem that you use only a few branches in the final book. Don’t look on the rest as waste. The research you have done will be in the timbre of your work even where it is not apparent in the content; in fact, research can become all too visible in a book and weaken the effect, like seeing the conjuror palm the card or catching a glimpse of the elegant model’s bra strap. Beware of exposing the architecture.

Do not confine your research to factual material. At certain times people speak more freely in fiction, not least in societies or periods such as the Victorian where repression is the norm and writers have to speak truth in disguise.

The most difficult decision in research is knowing when to stop. One route opens many others; the answer to the question you had yields more questions; or the material is just so damn interesting. In the age of high speed broadband, where you can be delivered in a trice to yet another treasure trove, it's especially tempting to sit, and sit, to sift the jewels ('Oh, my precious'). It’s important to recognize when exploration threatens to slide into procrastination, for then it’s time to write. For all our learning, we will only be credited for what we have ourselves contributed, not simply contemplated.


Writers do not exist who know exactly what they are going to say from beginning to end when they first sit down to craft the opening words of book or novel. Some will be highly organised with a detailed plot summary, time line, storyboard or chapter plan; others will have mapped out only the sketchiest outline, perhaps a paragraph or three of synopsis. However prepared, no writer is entirely in control at this stage.

The act of writing is a journey in the company of characters and ideas. You may think you know your characters at the outset - after all you have written their biographies and pinned them on the board in front of you - but you don’t. They will let you know more fully who they are as you move along together, just as real friends do on a long trip. Often they will take you to places you didn’t know you were going to visit. And as for the ideas you had when you started; prepare to shed some and take on board a host more that you will discover along the way. If you are new to the experience, prepare to be surprised how much you have to write to find out what you think.

Perhaps there should be a fourth R. Rewriting. At some point you are going to have to turn back and do it all again. Some writers wait until they put the final stop on the last sentence of their first draft, then pause before they begin the process of rewriting; others (myself included) constantly redraft as they go. The truth is, whatever our individual techniques, for most published writers six, seven, eight drafts and more are not unusual.

Master storyteller Stephen King in his book On Writing helpfully makes the distinction between writing with the door closed (first draft) and writing with the door open (rewriting). There is a heat and intimacy, a first flush, in your relations with your book which does not bear interference. But even lovers have to come out of the bedroom sometime. Getting the advice of others is like marriage counselling for your book - better make sure you consult with someone who has expertise on the subject.

Are you getting the idea yet that a writer’s life is a busy one? It is, and it is tricky to get the balance right between the three (or four) Rs to make it also a productive one. Nor are these all. Just as in school our children cannot become entirely rounded individuals by concentrating only on the 3Rs but must also explore other subjects and have time to play and socialise, so must we writers allow ourselves the opportunity to be fully human. Above all, we must find from somewhere the space for another 3Rs - Recreation, Rest and Recuperation. Oh, I wish had the time for one of those time management courses.


  1. Thanks for sharing!

    I love the quote "Good research is organised curiosity." As the quote implies, research should not be viewed as a passive exercise. Rather, it involves a dynamic interaction between you and the material. In addtion to acquiring answers, a research session ought to end with many more questions than you began with.

  2. Thanks Elodea, and thanks for the elegance of your own: 'a dynamic interaction between you and the material.' Neat.