Christmas will be upon us before we know it, with the attendant ‘downtime’ between Christmas Day and January 6 (Twelfth Night) when many people return to work. These are the 12 days of Christmas. By all means we can sing along with the carols, drink and make merry. But it’s also a time, away from the relentless merry-go-round, to reflect and take stock and maybe even do a bit of recreational writing to feed back into the hard graft when it comes, as come it surely will.
Here's 12 writing tips for the 12 days of Christmas.
1. Free writing
On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me:
A cartridge in a carefree…
It’ll be Christmas Day after all so we have to allow for a bit of blurring and slurring. A pen makes for a lovely Christmas present – an actual nib pen with a cartridge, and the chance to relish that motion of the wrist and the free flow of ink on the page. Maybe put that on Santa’s list and look forward to a treat in store.
But the real tip here is the carefree hand, or more precisely, the carefree mind. Free writing or ‘automatic writing’ is a wonderful exercise that you can practice on a daily basis and takes a mere 2-5 minutes. Give yourself a dead-easy prompt like ‘When I woke up this morning…’ and then simply write write write for a few minutes without stopping, editing or trying to shape what you’re writing. Just let the thoughts and images flow. It gets you writing, ‘putting pen to paper’ and getting marks on that dreaded blank sheet. Many is the time, especially in corporate contexts, that people have told me this simple exercise is ‘liberating’.
You can do it in a more focused way if you wish, by addressing any subject and giving yourself the prompt ‘The thing about X is…’ and follow the same process. Five minutes allows for a good flow. There’ll be chaff. But there many be some stalks of golden wheat as well. And you’ll be set up for the day’s writing.
On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me:
Two turtle doves.
The tip here is simply this: to allow yourself to go ‘coo’ every now and then and be pleased with what you’ve written. Not so difficult on Boxing Day when the sherry and the Burgundy red is still swirling through your veins, but seriously, on any old day a pat on the back every now and then is vital. And talking about COO, this applies to everyone in an organisation because just about everyone has to write as part of their job.
3. Ask questions
On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me:
Three French hens.
Why ‘French’ hens? Always interrogate a brief, particularly if you don’t understand something. See below.
On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:
Four calling birds.
Well, I could live with French hens, as eggs is eggs*, but I didn’t know what a calling bird was, so I looked it up. In the original 1780 version these are ‘Colly birds’, colly being a regional English expression for ‘coal-black’. In this – admittedly brief – instance of research, I discovered that there are at least 21 versions of this carol, or cumulative song, dating between 1780 and 1966. Research always gives you more than you set out to find.
The internet’s a wonderful thing of course, but so is asking people who know more about a subject than you do. And dipping into any edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is always a delight.
5. Constant limbering
On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:
Five gold rings.
Just as this line is always given emphasis in the song’s recital, it’s worth emphasising that more often than not the copywriter’s challenge can seem Olympian (annual reports, re-writing screeds of web copy, ‘translating’ jargon-ridden text…). So, you have to keep that muscle flexed: do a little bit of writing every day. This could be the automatic writing exercise, or a journal entry, or maybe even a haiku. Something. Five minutes a day. Every day. Christmas included.
6. Golden eggs
On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:
Six geese a-laying.
Now, in my experience, commercial writers are generally not shy or retiring types, who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. They’re generally fairly confident. But how many would claim a golden egg, or two? The golden egg! You’ll know it when you see it. You can’t force it. That’s the beauty of it. The more you practice the more likely it is to pop out every now and then (see 5 above). That’s a good moment to say coo.
7. Draw inspiration
On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me:
Seven swans a-singing.
This makes me think of Shakespeare. Think of Shakespeare (layer of innumerable golden eggs). Think of any writers that inspire you. Re-read them. Read closely. Ask yourself ‘why and how does this work for me?’ That – in truth – is the best way to become a better writer.
8. Theme and volume control
On the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:
Eight maids a-milking.
Whatever you’re writing find a good theme. The theme is the backbone of a piece. If it’s a theme that bears promise, milk it. But don’t over-milk it. To find the right level, dial it up and dial it down, then be prepared to ‘kill all your darlings’ as William Faulkner said.
9, 10, 11, 12: All singing and dancing
It’s early January by now and we’ve got nine ladies dancing, ten lords a-leaping, eleven pipers piping and twelve drummers drumming. The party’s in full swing, the carol is culminating and the final tip is to bring all these tips together for full effect. Well, it’s not the final tip actually. The penultimate tip is: break the rhythm, break the pattern, break the formula. Break the built-up expectation: surprise your reader. And the last tip – there’s way over a baker’s dozen here – is listen for the music in language. Like free-flowing water, allow your language to find its own course. Trust it. Listening is the true art. “To listen is to know, to live, and to care.” (Kathleen Jamie, poet, essayist and nature writer.)
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