Great advice for travel (and other) writers

I’ll do anything to avoid writing. In fact, in between the first sentence I keyed in here (which is not the one you’ve just read) and the one that follows, I went downstairs to pick up post that didn’t need to be opened because I already knew what was inside. Right now, I’m thinking of going down again to put the kettle on for another cuppa even though the mug on the desk is still warm from the last one. I’d sooner attend to my tax return or attempt to understand my pension than get down a first draft of anything I might later want people to read. The first draft, for me, is blood frae stane. It’s the editing I like: the tweaking of paragraphs, sentences and phrases to get the right words in something approaching the right order (if not quite, as in poetry, the best words in the best order), and then the chiselling and chipping and polishing, and finally the reading in my head or aloud, until I’ve got something I can live with.

I’m one of a generation of journalists raised on Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language”, in the course of which he declares:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Great advice to follow — but only once you’ve done the first draft. Before that, I let myself be guided by the American writer Ann Lamott (in her excellent Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life):

Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

So what, you might be thinking, has this got to do with travel writing? Well, my favourite piece of advice on writing — any kind of writing — was given by the late, great publisher Jock Murray to the travel writer Stanley Stewart. It’s advice that will prove useful when you’re at the stage of the dental draft. What Jock said was: “Cut, and an echo of what you have cut will remain.”

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