It was no ordinary Wednesday. In three hours, William Boyd would be in our office. Sitting at my desk four storeys high, the city stretched out below. The belt of grey sea barely visible in the white, foggy morning. I looked out and then started writing what would become enough questions to cover two sides of A3.
William Boyd: a novelist who takes up a fair swathe of the ‘B’ section of my bookshelves. As a long-term bibliophile and writer, I was elated to spend a few hours chatting about writing and his career.
A career in which he has written many award-winning novels, as well as short stories, plays, screenplays and non-fiction. In 2010 his novel Any Human Heart was adapted for a mini series. And in 2012 he wrote the James Bond novel Solo. In addition to his writing, he also directed The Trench in 1999—a First World War film with many (now) famous faces.
The time we spent with him was illuminating, funny and thought-provoking. His words were clear but soft. The afternoon passed quickly, replete with anecdotes and advice. Of everything we spoke about, I want to share the lessons he imparted about great writing and what makes a great writer. So, let’s get going.
Make your writing clear
No matter what you want to achieve with your writing, it’s essential you’re understood. For what is writing without understanding? Capturing the fundamental nature of writing with simplicity, Boyd’s statement got me thinking about why we write.
Writing is a type of communication. Unlike face-to-face interaction, writing misses the non-verbal and oral aspects of communication. In the absence of body language and tone, writers have punctuation and grammar. Wielded with a scrupulous eye, these elements of writing provide clarity, meaning and impact. Often these elements are honed during the editing process.
This doesn’t come without its hurdles. Portraying beautiful, complex or radical ideas is an underrated skill. One that isn’t celebrated as brilliant prose, sublime metaphors or complex storylines. But it should be.
Employ your imagination
“Don’t write what you know. Write what you don’t know.”
Too often writers hear they must write about what they know. Boyd, however, believes the opposite. With robust research and creativity, you can create worlds, events and characters outside your experience. He set his novel, The Blue Afternoon, in Manila—a place he had never set foot. Yet he created a narrative from research and his imagination.
Imagination is essential to all types of writing. Without imagination it wouldn’t be possible to create interesting content, memorable sentences, a unique tone of voice and writing that captures attention in a noisy world.
Imagination means you can put words together in new and compelling ways, write meaningful content that connects with different audiences, and create unique storylines (whether that’s for fiction or a marketing campaign).
It’s quite simple, really. Your imagination dies: your writing dies.
Stay away from clichés
How do you judge good writing? Boyd judges on originality. Stereotypes of language, speech, character and storyline are all indicators of poor writing.
And this isn’t just pertinent to fiction writing. Who wants to read a tired blog post, watch a recycled advert or read a reiterated manifesto? No one. Still, clichés are ubiquitous in every type of writing; it takes creativity and assiduity to keep them out of your content.
At best, clichés are dull. At worst, deeply insulting.
Watch the world
Perhaps the antidote to clichéd writing: observing everyday life in its mundane repetitions. This is a powerful writing tool.
Boyd urged us to sit in a train station for twenty minutes and observe “the cinema of everyday life”. As a writer you must have an eye for detail. Including snippets of reality in your copy keeps characters, places and dialogue engaging and fresh.
The banal is not boring. It’s rich in interest and says a lot about an individual and what makes us human. If your writing can communicate that, then it will resonate with your readers.
Get ready to test your stamina
Writing a novel is hard. It takes a long time. It’s a frustrating, freeing and immersive experience. One that possesses you, envelopes you.
Writing tests your grit. Boyd explained: “Many novels are abandoned because people run out of ideas.” Another way of saying people run out of stamina for the project.
And it’s not just writing a novel where this happens. It can happen with articles, blogs, case studies, or any other type of communication you might write. When you write for a living, when you write every day, you need fresh ideas and tenacity.
Always have your ending
This piece had ended before it had started. Boyd always has an ending in mind when he begins a novel. An ending acts like a compass—it stops you getting derailed or giving up. So, how did I want to end this article? What was my silent cicerone guiding me through each paragraph?
It was when Boyd said: “I suffer a professional setback once a week.” Writing is a constant process of creating, refining, deleting, rewriting, editing, reediting and if you persevere: publishing. Every writer encounters this—no matter their experience. To a writer’s ear, that was every encouragement I needed.
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