Finding the write ways

Simon Eliot and W. R. Owens - The Clockwork Muse - How We Write
May 28, 1999

A symbol of this century's obsession to learn how everything works - from the universe to the perfectly prepared meal - is the annual cornucopia of "How To" books. While those on macrame and homeopathy may come and go, those on How To Write are ever present. The capacity to endure reflects how crucial, difficult, and elusive "good writing" is. These books represent but three credible strategies in the wide range that the subject can support.

In all of its key aspects - editors, contributors, mission and message - A Handbook to Literary Research is the product of the Open University's MA in literature. The question is, does it successfully convert from a textbook connected to a specific OU course to a more general student handbook for quick-reference use? Because it has a number of textbook features - in both content and formatting - it does not wholly succeed.

One expects a concise and ready-reference manual. But notwithstanding the preponderance of headings and sub-headings these divisions are not listed in the table of contents. At the end of each chapter are "Questions and exercises" typically associated with textbooks. More significantly, the bulk of the book contains summaries of and discourse on relationships between research and literary theory. To synopsise the century's numerous literary theories is unquestionably useful, but to do so in a handbook seems a digression. Granted, some of this discourse is admirable. Simon Eliot's separate sections on "Bibliography" and "History of the book", and W. R. Owens's on "Editing literary texts" are timely, well informed and instructive, exposing students to new fields and rich areas of study. However, such textbook-length disquisitions come at the expense of more relevant chapters, like the one on planning, writing, and presenting a dissertation, which covers just 12 pages.

The book is notably successful when it concentrates on research techniques, tools, and resources. The first chapter, "Tools of the trade", succinctly introduces the Dewey Decimal System, printed sources, online library catalogues and the internet. The "Reference" chapter alone is worth the purchase. It comprises a quirky, but absorbing, glossary of research-related terms and an outstanding 25-page annotated checklist of libraries, reference books and other sources. If research is orienteering, then this checklist is both detailed map and trusty compass.

Eviatar Zerubavel takes issue with books on research and writing that imply that checklists and synopses of resources and literary contexts are all the equipment a writer requires to start a research project. In The Clockwork Muse , he assumes that writer's block is natural, pervasive, and tends to prevail regardless of an individual's ability, ideas, and resources. He argues, therefore, that any writer's first task is to insure himself against this paralysing condition by commanding the "procedural", not the "material", aspects of producing a manuscript. The basis of his philosophy is "temporal organisation": self-disciplined planning - "methodicalness and routinisation" - result in manuscripts written well and on time.

However, the rewards of self-discipline are seldom attained because the path to it is booby-trapped with normal human failings, like procrastination and apprehension. So, Zerubavel outlines a comprehensive programme for writers: how to determine a workable weekly, daily, and hourly schedule; how to approach the actual writing (beginning with the single word); how to pace and adjust progress in order to meet deadlines; and how to draft, revise, and finish. But it is not all scaffolding. The mortar is attitude: set low expectations and reachable goals.

Zerubavel's 20-odd years of personal success with the programme and the evangelism with which he details it are convincing and seductive. However, it closely resembles catechism, physics or dieting. One really has to embrace and practise the whole programme in order to succeed. Perhaps this is a weakness of The Clockwork Muse . A writer's approach to writing is so subjective that it is difficult to subscribe to another's programme, especially one so refined and intricate.

Implicit in Mike Sharples's How We Write is an inversion of Zerubavel's approach. He begins by saying that "what works for one writer may just stifle another". Because writing "interacts with almost every other mental, physical and social activity", each writer's condition and situation is different. Prescriptive approaches are limited and limiting. Sharples's purpose is not to teach composition, but to describe the habits and techniques of how we write. Although a professor of education technology at the University of Birmingham, he avoids the politics and pigeon-holing associated with academia by using three approaches (cognitive psychology, media theory, and social constructionism) and by drawing productively on the work of others.

In order to pursue his thesis that writing is a "design activity" comparable to other creative design activities, such as architecture and graphic design, he grounds his study in an inductive examination of how we write. Part One addresses the writing process as it occurs "in the head". He defines the "Cycle of engagement and reflection" as the touchstone and cognitive engine of writing. Providing compelling evidence are in-depth analyses of how children develop writing abilities.

Part Two introduces "writing as design" by showing how writers can learn from the techniques illustrated in Bryan Lawson's How Designers Think (1990). His writing-as-design model is based on the three acts of planning, composition, and revision, each of which incorporate cycles of contemplation-specification-generation-interpretation. The entire dynamic is affected and connected by material objects (writing implements and media) and cognitive constructs (such as "conceptual spaces"). Focusing on the writer as individual, he explores and celebrates the subjectivity inherent in writing habits and motivations. Part Three is a miscellany covering writer-reader "dialogues", writers' social responsibilities, the dynamics of collaboration and the effects of technology on present and future writing.

This is an ambitious and fascinating study. It is both highly researched and highly readable. That it is unencumbered by technical language makes it effective as a "How To" book, with the added benefit of being one of the few such books to offer new, thought-provoking answers to an old question.

Gregory LeStage, DPhil (Oxon), is writing a book on the 20th-century British short story.

Simon Eliot and W. R. Owens

Editor - Simon Eliot and W. R. Owens
ISBN - 0 415 19859 3 and 19860 7
Publisher - Routledge, in association with the Open University
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 240

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