Have You Tried Turning it Off and On Again?

This essay examines the value of stock advice to writers.

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When you have a good enough solution to 9 out of 10 issues with a computer then the stock response made famous by The IT Crowd serves you well. The question is whether the same can be said about writing advice. The writing group equivalent to turning it off and on again is to remove the first paragraph or two in order to arrive at the action earlier. Often it’s pretty good advice, people start writing ahead of the starting point and all that warming up isn’t needed by the reader. At the same time, to blithely strip introductory paragraphs there are certain things we might miss out on and surely the action can wait a moment or two.

I find that in the context of writing advice, it is often action, action, action that people want within a group context, but reading a novel, or even a short story, in a more considered way – as we do with a finished work – sometimes all that action just ends up making you feel sick and dizzy like you’ve eaten too much chocolate cake.

The solution is with the writer. If the writer enters into a story or novel with the awareness that the beginning is very rarely the beginning and the end is very rarely the end, then they can purposefully overrun at both ends of the writing, knowing they will subsequently seek a logical cut off point for each. However, if they make a cold start, and invest heavily in the first lines, aware of their importance, this can create a problem. It can make the opening paragraph feel clunky and this is why it then looks like it needs cutting, because the burden of beginning ways too heavily on it.

The better approach is often for the writer to sneak up on the beginning and ensnare it. This involves meandering and finding a flow until you arrive naturally at the start of your piece. Rather than attaching yourself too firmly to the very first words you place on the page. Similarly, at the end, abrupt endings always feel off, the first place you finish might not be the actual finish, so keep going, write a bit more to make sure. You can always remove the overrun later.

Anthony Levings is a writer compelled by capturing moments in time and history.

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