A Recipe For Writing

An essay with footnotes

I have two things to do this morning. After a strong cup of coffee, I decided to combine them.

The two things:
  1. Write an outline for a course on ‘How To Write’
  2. Email a friend (from primary and secondary school) who sent me something quite extraordinary last week. (Keep reading to find out what it was.)

I realise that by combining them, I won’t manage either of them “properly”, but that’s fine. In fact, it’s great. And acknowledging it is important, because here’s my first lesson to would-be writers:


Don’t try to be perfect

You’ll never get anything done if you allow yourself to assess and reassess your work too early. My impro teacher Keith Johnstone taught us to aim for average – a profoundly liberating bit of “permission” (as if anybody needs permission).

(By the way, if you are wondering why I have put a full stop on that line just above this sub-heading, it’s a time-saving device. The only other way to create a break in text with the blogging system I use1 is to type this:


And it takes too long. Explanation ends.)


Gather content

The next big lesson for would-be writers is to make some kind of list of your own particular content. For me, recently, that’s been anything to do with making a speech. Previously, when I wrote a book about sewing all my own clothes, that was my content.

And before that I wrote a book about my education, which involved collecting as much as I could remember myself, and also asking people who were there.

Which brings me to my schoolfriend, Abby, who sent me that parcel last week. It was not empty, which is another way of saying that it had content.

Different from the writer’s content I mentioned above, but content all the same. Real, substantial content, of a kind that needed to be put in the fridge straight away.


Choose a format

Switching back again to “How To Write”, I suggest you now make a list of formats. I’ve done this myself, over several years, and come up with dozens and dozens. One day I might get around to scanning my list of formats and posting it as a downloadable file here, but not right now because I’m on a roll.

What do I mean by formats? I mean, structures within which to shape the content. Writers write (among other things) essays, novels, poems. Within those categories, there are still more options. If you chose poetry, you could write:

  • a haiku
  • a Pindaric ode
  • a Clerihew
  • free verse
  • etc etc

If you poured your content into a script (mainly dialogue), it could have the shape of a crime drama, or a love story. You could use a cast of thousands, or a one-person show.

Speaking for myself, I love playing with different formats, and I’m inspired by others who do too. The group of writers who gather under the name Oulipo used to create complex, challenging formats precisely because they believed (I paraphrase) that the more you constrain creativity, the more you liberate it.

What does that mean? Well, my favourite of those Oulipo writers, Georges Perec, wrote a whole novel without the letter “e”.

Just think about that, for a second.

I drew this pic of Perec’s biography last year


And how does this apply to Abby, and the content she sent that I put in the fridge last Saturday?

Well, I had no previous experience working with this particular kind of content. To be perfectly honest, I found it a bit intimidating.

I tried to remember working with anything broadly similar. Nope. I looked for ideas in books. And eventually I went online to see what others had done. I looked at how people combined this with other types of content, their use of timing, and temperature.


Name your ideal reader

Writers need to write for somebody (as opposed to nobody). In my experience, attempting to write for absolutely everybody never works. It can’t work. Your audience is simply too diverse.

So I have found it helpful to keep in mind an ideal reader, or a couple of readers, or a small group. Who that is varies from one project to another, but (to give a specific example) when I was writing a lot for The Sunday Times, I used to keep two people in mind at once:

Mrs Peggy Parker

  1. my wife’s great-aunt, pictured here, who was not highly educated – not a professor or anything like that – but quick-witted and funny
  2. my daughter, then at primary school

I reckoned that if I could write something that was both interesting and comprehensible to those two people, it might suit the million-plus readers of The Sunday Times.

With this blog post, I have different readers in mind:

  1. Abby (hi Abby!)
  2. you, oh dear reader who isn’t Abby but is interested in writing tips (hi, you!)


And how does this apply to the content in the fridge? I’m sure you have already guessed that it’s food. So I don’t have readers in mind, but a different type of consumer. Eaters.

But the same applies, because I want to create something interesting and comprehensible edible.


Change the mood

One of the things that makes writing interesting is the opportunity to see somebody change. It can be wonderful to see an essay writer move from being convinced to uncertain (or the other way around).

Or to see in a dramatic piece of writing (novel, play script) a character shift from confident to fearful, happy to sad, in a given scene and over the work as a whole.

These changes give the writing momentum.


Create expectations

Another way to do that is by holding something back, and revealing bits of it only gradually. Each new revelation creates new understanding in the minds of the characters, and of the readers. It prompts new questions, which in turn creates momentum.

So: last Saturday, I was really excited to learn that Abby’s parcel had arrived. I’d been out, walking my dog Peanut, soaking up the beauty of early spring blossom, lungs full of oxygen. But when I got home I was told that there was something “quite scary” in the kitchen.

Try to imagine how this affected my mood.

I opened the fridge. On the lowest shelf, just above the salad tray, was an insulated box, imperfectly sealed with brown tape: Somebody had opened it before me. What had they seen?

You must be aware, by now, that I have deliberately kept back the nature of the “quite extraordinary” contents of Abby’s parcel (as I described it at the top). You might be delighted by the mystery, or slightly annoyed. Either way, you probably want to know what was in the box – whereas, if I’d told you too soon you might have thought, “Not interested,” and stopped reading.


Of course, some people who started reading have stopped. But not you. I know that you’re still here.


Open the box

A great writer2 once demonstrated a couple of hundred ways to write this sentence: “I was very pleased to receive your letter.” I’m not going to do the same, but I’ll give a handful of alternatives, addressed to Abby:

  1. Blimey, how exciting to get your parcel! (Informal, exclamatory.)
  2. Your customer Mr Flintoff acknowledges receipt. (Formal.)
  3. I came home from walking Peanut to find your parcel had arrived while I was out. (Informative.)
  4. I kicked off my muddy trainers and dashed to the fridge. (With stage direction.)

And so on. There’s really no end of ways to vary a single general idea, with a wide range of different effects. If you want to be confident in writing, I recommend that you start playing around in this way.

And a simple way to do that is to get hold of a list of figures of speech, and use each one to express a single idea.

I particularly recommend the tropes (simile, metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche); and figures that create sound effects (alliteration, assonance, anaphora); and figures that over- or under-state (hyperbole, litotes).3

Learning to use these is to writers like cooks learning to use herbs and spices. (See what I did there?4)


Find an ending

Looking back on this piece of work (something all writers should do), I’ve spotted a few mistakes and amended them. I daresay it could be improved further, but I’m satisfied that it works as a framework for the How To Write course I’m preparing.

But I have not by any means completed my story about Abby’s parcel. So please allow me to continue.

After school, Abby became a conservation biologist. One of the things she did was study non-native animals – “aliens” that tend to run amok and damage native ecosystems. What to do?

One answer, she concluded, is to eat them.

  • They’re abundant (too abundant)
  • They’re local (no need to fly them around the world)
  • They live happy, healthy lives in the wild (no battery farming)
  • They’re nutritious

If you’ve been paying attention (and gosh, I don’t know what else you’ve been doing, if you’re here, all the way down this page), you will see why the “content” I received from Abby was extraordinary. It was extra -ordinary. It was beyond ordinary. It was not a packet of meat from the supermarket.

Specifically, it was a shoulder of venison, from a non-native species of deer, called muntjac5, sealed up in an airtight bag, with a sprig of rosemary and a bay leaf.

After looking up recipes, I marinaded it for 24 hours in thinly sliced onions, with garlic, and a fair bit of cumin. I transferred it to a casserole dish, added carrots, another onion (cut in four), and some liquid to cover it (wine, and water). I cooked it on a very low heat for about 6 hours.

It came off the bone easily. It tasted delicious.

Thank you Abby.

And thank you, other reader, for reading this far. If you too would like to buy some of this tasty venison, and see what other non-native species Abby provides, you can do so through Tasty Aliens: Eating For Ecology, her website.

PS. While you’re there, send Abby a message, wishing her luck with this new(ish) venture. Over and out.

1 This site uses Textpattern, and I like it very much. Back

2 The writer was Desiderius Erasmus, friend of St Thomas More. Back

3 You could check out the wonderful collection of figures gathered by my friend Jay Heinrichs, including these examples he collected from The Simpsons. Back

4 Simile / analogy. Back

5 Or Muntiacus reevesi, as they say in Latin. Back