Why writing is a bit like a Taylor Swift album

Stay with me here…

Recently I was enjoying a lovely 5 hour car journey with my girls, a fixed grin firmly established on my face as they fought, fidgeted and fed their way through the journey. To keep the cheer cheerful and the miles mindful we listened to some music. Now there are many things that have surprised me about parenthood but loosing control of the car music was not one I expected quite so early. It actually began with the toddler age when I endured hours of Wheels on the Bus, and the years have been equally traumatic with various phases of Disney albums, Frozen album (a full year) and the occasional storytelling montage.

Thankfully tastes have matured and at least now we get some level of music I can actually screech out loud to in the car.  I don’t mind Taylor Swift at all, in fact I really like her music and really appreciate her wit and lyrics. But 4 hours of it, and I was ready to drive over the harbour wall when we finally arrived.  What did save me though was the talking bit at the end of one of her albums where she demonstrated how she wrote a few of the songs. In one, she had a ‘sick’ tune (meaning  it was pretty darn good) and she then just had to write the lyrics.  In another she had a story and she had to find the right tune. In another, she was given a beat and she turned it into a hit.

And it got me thinking about writing words.

As a writer, I tend to do a lot of writing. So far, so obvious.   But as I am preparing to host a workshop at the Dalky Writing Festival I’ve been planning some exercises and thinking a lot about my own writing techniques.   And what strikes me is the variety of ways in which I write every day, each different, each coming from a different part of me, each producing a different melody, beat and tune, but all essential to the album collection of writings.

I usually start the day with a furious flurry of free writing – I use the website www.750words.com but it’s essentially the same as Morning Pages, which anyone who has read Julia Cameron’s Artists Way will recognise. It’s like having a good old cough and bringing up all the phlegm that is building inside you, and ejecting it from your body.   Kinda gets it all off your chest.   But it has amazed me how many great ideas or thoughts, or sentences have come from that.

I also use free writing when I’m stuck.  I learned it recently at a writing retreat and it’s a technique where instead of getting bogged down in a structured plan (see below) you just start writing in a  feverish frenzy and don’t stop to fix spelling or grammar or ideas and kind of marathon tap until you’ve fallen exhausted over the edge of the page…. it’s amazing what can be freed up with that.  It is quite liberating, and allows you the freedom to write without thinking.

At the opposite end of the scale, I then love the structure of planning out of scenes or beats within scenes or chapters for my novel, and my non-fiction, and working methodically through the body of work. I use Scrivener which is a programme that helps you chart out plots and characters and plan how the book will be structured.  While typing I can just write notes all over my writing, move bits around, just list ideas I want to write about and worry about where they fit later.  You can ‘index card’ every section you write so you can play a lovely game of ‘move the cards’ every so often to see how things might look in different ways. (Or if you’re bored and procrastinating, it can provide endless amusement putting the end at the middle or seeing how many stories you can make by tumbling up your sections headings.) I love the boundaries of this, the borders around each section which allow me to focus on one thought or scene without being overwhelmed by the whole project.  When I write like this, it is the opposite of free writing, and is very thoughtful and nuanced.

As a day job, I work as a campaign copywriter for the non-profit sector, so much of that writing is very focused and has a very specific technique to maximise storytelling and donor engagement.  After the research and playing around with ideas and themes, the discipline of making every single word work is challenging in a really satisfying way.

As a freelance journalist I have to write facts without flourish, although I have to weave engaging words between them, and I love finding ways through an issue. Every piece has a clear Intro, question, exploration and conclusion.

Personally I also write a diary and have been advised to also start journaling to ‘deal with some stuff’ although frankly I find my morning pages and Gin do that just as well.

Professionally I write blogs (one topic driven, one writing focused and one work related) which often need to be courageous, complete, and succinct yet thorough. Again, taking a theme, mulling it over, playing with the words and making a piece of prose that informs, inspires or entertains.

taylorSo many ways to write, so many outcomes for the writing. Every day I learn a new rhythm, or discover a new tune to play on my laptop, I never run out of words (although I can easily run out of steam.) But then that’s when other words come into play. At the end of her album, Taylor Swift talks about listening to other music to nurture and inspire her, and that is what writers do too. When you need a break from writing, reading is the next best thing.   Or listening to music in a five hour car journey.   That even inspired this post.

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