‘Like the photon is for electromagnetism, or the Higgs boson for gravity, so too are words the force carriers for thought.
– Nobody, or, at least, nobody until just now
OK, folks: this one’s interactive. You’ll need to grab a pen and paper (or your Word document), ‘cos it’s time to get serious. But not too serious.
You’re probably reading this because you’re a writer, and you saw the title. If my blindingly awesome borderline-psychic powers of reasoning have indeed proven to be effective on this occasion, then take a moment to describe a situation in which you’re patting yourself on the back – because you deserve it, word hero.
But first, let me just say: I love writing. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Med Comms, marketing, logistics, creative writing, or any other industry; we’re here right now to celebrate. That is, unless you’re an author or poet, in which case, congratulations: you’re a real writer (but also, go away, because I’m jealous).
I think there are few – if any – other media that are so universally important in fields ranging from science and technology through to art. Chances are, you’ve already engaged with a number of written pieces today – (not including this one, which by definition you are engaging with right now) be it a novel you were reading over your lunch break, an e-mail you sent back to your colleague (the one that read, ‘yes, sign me up for the Morris dancing class, because I need more cool hobbies to pop on my CV’), signage on your drive to take the kids to school, or that huge warning bilboard that said ‘WARNING: CROCODILES’ by that lake you went for a swim in this morning. You badass.
I’m assuming you like writing too, which is why we’re here. So, this National Writing Day, I thought we could do a quick writing exercise – just for fun. It’ll only take a few minutes. Ready?
TASK 1: THE FIRST ONE
The first introductory task is an easy one; I bet you’ve already done it quietly in the background, seething with a gentle yet unforgiving rage, all because a blog post like this (all about WRITING!) could contain such a blatant, STUPID spelling error. That’s right: your first task is to find the mistake.
Got it? Of course you did. Oh, wait, no: that one wasn’t deliberate. I was talking about ‘bilboard’ – what else did you… never mind. Moving on.
TASK 2: THE ONE BEFORE THE ONE THAT’S BEFORE THE FINAL ONE
Write a statement, right now, about anything.
No, seriously: try it. In the words of novelist, Jane Smiley, ‘every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist.’1 OK, to make it easier (since I wanted this to be a super speedy exercise), let’s say the subject is ‘water’. Now, write about water, any way you want. Give yourself 5 minutes to craft a line or two. GO!
Done? Here’s what I came up with (FULL disclosure: I really did only take the allocated time, so don’t blame me for this being rubbish – that’s the whole idea, really):
I see myself reflected in the water of the lake, knowing the same substance flows freely through my veins, bathing the seat of my consciousness in life. What separates the water of the ocean from the water within my eye? Does water observe itself still on planets afar?
OK, there we go. It’s a bit weird, but who cares, because we’ve got the creative juices flowing. I’m intrigued – did you go all ‘arty’ like me? Or did you write the start of something more scientific? Perhaps you started to write a poem, or state a fact? Doesn’t it just go to show the range of things that can be accomplished within 5 measly minutes? Regardless, that’s task 2 done, folks. Let’s move on.
TASK 3: THE ONE BEFORE THE FINAL ONE
Next, I want you to write a line that creates a mental clash, by dropping in an unexpected opposite (this was actually a favourite literary trick of the great Oscar Wilde2). For example: I didn’t expect to see Sam at the party – I knew he’d be there. Or, how about: surfing isn’t hard; it’s impossible.
What we’re doing (rather badly, in my examples) is setting up the reader to expect something, but dishing out the opposite to make their neurons scream. Let’s take a look at one of Oscar Wilde’s examples, which – as expected – is just lovely: ‘I can resist everything except temptation’.2 Ooft.
OK, your turn! Give yourself another 5 or so minutes to come up with something.
Done? Here’s my rather pathetic attempt:
Time saved is time well spent.
Good? Annoying? Awful? I’m really not sure. Just nod and move on.
TASK 4: THE FINAL ONE
Right, it’s time for the final task. I think one of the shortcuts to ‘better’ writing is comedy – because, surely, the writer must be excellent if the words are making you laugh? It’s a handy hack that hijacks the recipients innate circuitry – a bit like how the jumping spider, Portia fimbriata, preys upon other spiders by ‘hacking’ into their sensory experience via ‘lullabies’ plucked on their webs.3 OK, that example was super creepy, but you get the idea.
Defining what makes something funny is notoriously difficult. It’s not always obvious why something is making you laugh. So, for this task, I’m going to turn to Scott Adams, best known for his series of ‘Dilbert’ cartoons that you may have come across before. According to Adams, the key to writing (or creating) something funny is to combine at least two of his so-called ‘essential elements of humour’. Let’s check those out before we proceed:4
OK, simple. We just have to combine two or more of these elements to cook up something hilarious. My parents used to have a copy of one of Adams’ books in the loo – which is great, because I bet reading his work and visiting the toilet represent one such combination that Adams himself would be a bit upset by. Anyway, sorry for that oversharing.
To give you an example of what Adams is talking about, to me, the most obvious combination is that of cute and bizarre (or think, ‘unexpected’). For example, try these on for size:
Badger smiled as he tucked in to the six pack of tinnies
Little Timmy sat down to read his new book, ‘how to light a barn fire in 3 easy steps’
The lion, the witch, and the restraining order
Funny? Well, that depends, but I’m hoping they at least made you smile. Now, it’s your turn! Use Adams’ essential elements of humour to craft your own one-line comedy fest. GO!
Done? I’m actually very curious about this one. Send your creation to me if you like (grab my contact details from the site). I bet you’ve crafted some gold.
OK, folks; that’ll be it from me for now. Just remember my piece of advice: take time to write something random every day (even if just for a couple of minutes), and you’ll keep your writing chops sharpened and ready to… chop. Yep. Let’s finish. I’m clearly fresh out of inspiration.
- www.Goodreads.com. Jane Smiley. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/812901-every-first-draft-is-perfect-because-all-the-first-draft#:~:text=%E2%80%9CEvery%20first%20draft%20is%20perfect%20because%20all%20the%20first%20draft,would%20be%20to%20NOT%20exist.%E2%80%9D. Accessed May 2022.
- New York Post. Blame Oscar Wilde for the rise of Kim Kardashian. Available at: https://nypost.com/2014/10/05/we-can-blame-oscar-wilde-for-kim-kardashian/. Accessed May 2022.
- Jackson RR, Pollard SD. Predatory behavior of jumping spiders. Annu Rev Entomol. 1996;41:287-308.
- www.Dilbert.blog. Writing funny. Available at: https://dilbertblog.typepad.com/the_dilbert_blog/2007/07/writing-funny.html. Accessed May 2022.