Liz Lochhead's Writing Tips

Sometimes writing can be hard to start - playwright and Scotland's National poet Liz Lochhead offers her advice on the key to great writing.

All the good advice about writing is very simple.

So straightforward it’s all been said before, but it’s probably worth reminding ourselves of. I know I have to tell myself all this, and I have to do this every time I get going on something new:

1. Write what really interests you, not what you think you ought to be interested in.

2.The old five senses. See it, touch it, taste it, smell it, hear it. Turn yourself into it, said Ted Hughes, and then the words will look after themselves. Well, certainly I have to turn all my censors, inhibitors and ego, and false sense of myself as a writer, and certainly any attempts at cleverness off -- in the first draft at least.

See, it’s only when you read back what you have written down, tasting and testing the words as words and sounds you can see where you have captured a bit of life in the language, an image, a wee detail -- and that won’t be necessarily in the bit that felt like it flowed or had the fancy words, but often in the bit that you struggled over and in the end, och, just put down what would have to do for now…

3. Throw away all the bits that don’t have that bit of life in them, keep these surprisingly real or surprisingly honest and vivid bits, the bits that, to tell the truth, surprised you – mibbe by their simplicity -- and start again with them.

4. Don’t explain. You don’t have to give the reasons for going there or the co-ordinates on a map. Consider cutting off the beginning and the end paragraph or stanza of what you have written – and do this once you think its finished and cut down to the bone already. No ‘vamping till ready’, no summing up.

Just trust your reader to be right there with you in the middle of the place you are writing about. Get in, get out, don’t linger said Raymond Carver.

5. Don’t try and describe your feelings. An emotion named is an emotion obliterated from any text. Stick to those five sound senses, stick to objects and actions, what’s done, what’s said. Get this right and all the feeling in the world will be in this.

6. It’s all in the details, in the particular. Small things. Plain words, probably. But which ones? Ah, I said the advice was simple, I didn’t say it was easy…

7. Enjoy yourself. Struggle with not enjoying yourself until you begin to, very much.

(If I can’t, or won’t, then it’s usually because I’m not obeying Rule Number One.)

Image: Norman McBeath