‘What is written without effort …’

WritingWhen I first began writing for a living, I was surprised by how much effort it took to write a few hundred words of clear, easy-to-read prose.

There was the gathering of the raw materials: the ideas, the facts, and the opinions.  There was the writing and the rewriting.  And there was the reviewing and the polishing.  (Lots of polishing.)

I put the amount of effort required down to the fact that I wasn’t a proper writer.  Writing was just something that I did, something that paid the rent and the grocer and the wine merchant, while I kept an eye out for an opportunity to do something else.  But, as the years went by, the opportunities to do something else, something proper, became fewer and fewer.  At 22, you can decide to go to law school; at 32, it’s a little more problematic.  By no means out of the question.  Just a little more problematic.

Of course, I realised that, sooner or later, someone was going to notice that I wasn’t a proper writer.  And then it would all be over.  Then I really would have to find something else to do.

In an effort to postpone the day when I was ‘tumbled’, I began to widen my playing field.  I started writing for radio.  If I was tumbled in radio, maybe I could still write for magazines.  Or TV.  Or for the corporate world.  But the radio guys failed to spot that I was an imposter.  I remained un-tumbled.  And the cheques continued to tumble in.

And then, in my mid-thirties, I had a chance lunch with a celebrated poet.  ‘I’ve read some of your work,’ he said.  ‘You’re a craftsman.  I hope that you are being properly rewarded.’  (Was being a craftsman the same as being a proper writer?  I probably should have asked him.)

A few years later, and again purely by chance, I had lunch with the head of the English department at a ‘proper’ university.  ‘Do you write every day?’ he said.

‘Pretty much.’

‘And how many words – finished words, publishable words – do you usually produce in a day?’

‘Not many,’ I admitted.  ‘Five hundred.  Seven hundred on a good day.  A thousand on a really good day.’

He frowned slightly.  But said nothing.

‘Well, you know,’ I said, ‘you write the words, you think about what you have written, you rewrite, you rearrange, you polish.  It all takes time.’

‘Yes,’ he said.  ‘That’s a respectable day’s work.’

And later that very same day, now feeling slightly better about using so much effort to produce so few words, I came across a quote by Samuel Johnson: ‘What is written without effort is, in general, read without pleasure.’

These 483 words have taken me the best part of three hours to think about, write, rewrite, and polish.  I really hope that you find them a pleasure to read.

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