Quick on the Draw

If we must label it a party trick, one of mine is to write a short poem about a given subject in a short space of time, typically under five minutes.

This comes into its own at poetry shows with multiple performers, where I’ve been later in the bill. I’d pen a poem for each act while they’re still on stage and read mine at the end. I’ve occasionally been asked how it’s possible to write in such a short space of time, and the answer is simple: shortcuts.

The format I use is the four-line clerihew, and the first line is always the subject, so that’s 75% of it already written. The next line rhymes with the first, and then a different rhyme appears in the other two lines. Ridiculousness is encouraged with this style, making it ideal for a quick-and-dirty verse.

But much as people are impressed by my speedy poetry abilities, I’m similarly impressed by those who can churn out a drawing within the same time.

A few weeks ago, I found myself at a life-drawing class running by a pal. These sessions typically begin with a session of two- to five-minute poses to allow the artists to warm up, but I really struggle with these. By the time I’ve laid out the frame of the pose, there’s no time left to add in the details.

I’ve asked a couple of folk for advice about how to handle this, and there are some shortcuts, just as there are with clerihews: only draw part of the pose, construct the image in an abstract way, stick to the same colour of pen or pencil, &c.

The key to mastery, however, is to keep tackling these short poses. There was a time when I couldn’t write verse, never mind in such a short time, but I stuck at it and I’m sure I can stick at the life drawing.

When to Break a Line of Poetry

During my last poetry group meeting, I was inspired to create a type of verse known as found poetry. This is created by taking phrases, passages or sometimes individual words from another work – often a prose piece – and reframing them, frequently by altering the line breaks.

My source material was taken from a comment that another member had written when distributing our poems. Here it is as prose:

Collation enfolded. Zoom link below for this evening. There have been recent times in recent weeks where the Wi-Fi at 2 Shore Terrace has been decidedly dodgy.

I then arranged this into a short piece that illustrates arguably the most obvious distinction between prose and poetry: the difference between sentences and lines.

Collation enfolded.
Zoom link below for this evening.
There have been recent times
in recent weeks where the Wi-Fi
at 2 Shore Terrace
has been decidedly dodgy.

The original material uses the sentence as a delimiter, whereas the reworked version uses a combination of sentences and lines.

I felt the first two sentences would work well as complete lines on account of their brevity. The third sentence, by contrast, runs over four lines to emphasise the repetition of recent times and recent weeks. It is also considered good practice to end a line with a strong noun or verb, as the reader is likely to linger there for a moment longer than the other words.

If you want to try this yourself, here’s a more in-depth discussion about the difference between a sentence and a line. It’s also worth reading a few examples, such as when a journalist used the technique on speeches by the politician Donald Rumsfeld.

Nearly Nine Years of Staying on Topic

I have something I want to write about, but it needs to wait until at least next week. So in looking for inspiration to fill this week, I decided to go and look back at the entry I made around a year ago today.

Unfortunately, I was similarly uninspired back then, with topics I wanted to discuss, but my motivation was trampled by a couple of other factors.

Going back two years, I talked about the hurdles that beginner writers face, while 2019 took a look at how subtitlers caption TV programmes. In 2018, it was an entry about effective complaint letters, while five years ago, we discussed submitting Christmas stories during summer to meet publishing deadlines.

At this point, I was tempted to stop looking back, particularly as I didn’t have a point to make that would tie together these disparate threads. However, I was now curious.

In 2016, I was in the middle of an MLitt degree and running short of time, so I set readers a challenge. The year before that, it was all about saying goodbye to pieces of writing that weren’t working. Back in 2014, the topic was introverts and extroverts, and that’s as far back as I can go because the blog began in Oct 2013.

⭐⭐⭐

After leaving this entry overnight, I realised the connecting thread: in almost nine years, this blog has stayed relatively on-topic.

I think we’ve all had an experience where we subscribe to a newsletter or a content creator, only to find the topic either evolves or abruptly changes into something you didn’t sign up for. With this in mind, I’ve long been careful to make sure each entry harks back to writing in some way.

Just before I make a post on WordPress, the site tells me that it’ll be sent to more than 1,100 readers. That’s a pretty loyal fanbase to have built up over these nine years.

How to Write a Letter of Resignation

If you were following UK political news last week, you’ll have heard about the high number of resignations from Members of Parliament and from aides. So this week, let’s look at what should go into a letter of resignation.

Many of those leaving have chosen to make the letters public. Two typical examples are from Mims Davies and Lord Greenhalgh. Both of these are an A4 page in length and express gratitude, despite their reasons for submitting the letter.

But the job of a politician is not the same as being an employee and is often not subject to normal employment rules. As such, the examples given above are not good templates to follow.

When writing a letter of resignation for most jobs, there are many sources of help, including Glass Door, Indeed, and Reed. The exact advice varies between them, but they all recommend keeping the wording positive yet formal – and above all, brief. Politicians might like to showcase their reasons to the voters, but most of us don’t need to impress anyone.

I’ve only written one such letter, when transferring from a job in the UK government to the Scottish government. I kept it on my computer for weeks while waiting for official confirmation of the new position. However, HR advised me they considered this to be a transfer rather than an entirely new post, and all my work wasn’t needed in the end.

Learning About Libraries

On Saturday, I attended a virtual conference with the unwieldy title Space and Sociability in Library and Information History.

I wouldn’t normally seek out such a conference, but there were two factors that encouraged me:

  1. It was run by someone I know, so I wanted to show support.
  2. It was supposed to be held hundreds of miles away, but was moved online at the last minute.

We heard a number of speakers talking about how libraries have been set up and used in different eras and cultures. One presentation talked about how the subscription model was once the dominant one, while another explained how the Austrian government would grant borrowing privileges to library users.

As well as learning something new, I was able to clean and tidy my kitchen at the same time.

What’s more, the pal who organised the event is shortly starting a prestigious library-based job in Edinburgh, so I’ll be able to see her in person and talk about these marvellous institutions far more often.

The Importance of Structure and Conflict

This entry gives away the storyline of the novel The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kae Tempest. If you don’t want to know, it’s a good idea to skip this entry.


Every six months or so, one of my writing group members runs a 12-hour read-a-thon, where members can encourage each other to engage with a book they want to start or finish. We had the last one on Sunday just past, and I finished reading the aforementioned novel.

As a long-time fan of Kae Tempest’s other work, including poetry readings and music-backed albums, I really wanted to enjoy this, but what a letdown.

We’re led into the slightly seedy, slightly grimy world of the characters. But when the characters’ backgrounds are spelt out one after the other, it quickly becomes directionless.

Around two-thirds of the way in, there’s a scene where some chancer is beaten up after trying to charge a drug dealer double the previous price. This would have made a fantastic opener, from which we could have seen the tensions rise. Instead, any conflict is almost immediately resolved in the following chapters.

The book also suffers from some hallmarks of the first-time novelist. Firstly, Harry is a thinly-veiled version of Tempest. Secondly, the other characters all talk in a similar manner to each other, and not much conflict is built up between them for most of the time.

All the elements of a great story are there, but the final product feels like a collection of notes than a cohesive whole. The only element that made me push on through is the poetic prose throughout.

Having reached the abrupt ending, I recalled hearing about the first edit of Star Wars. It didn’t impress test audiences very much.

There is a standard story structure underpinning almost every major film, so an editor carefully went through the footage and shuffled it into an order closely resembling that structure. Here is the video of how it was done:

Had someone done the same with this novel, I might have been giving it a far better review.

Proofreading at Speed

One of the best ways to proofread a new piece is to leave it aside for a while, and then revisit it in the future. Writing and reading are two distinct processes, much like cooking and eating,

My preferred formula is to leave one minute per word, or 24 hours, whichever is longer. To find this, divide the number of words in a piece by 60. So a 600-word short story would be set aside for 24 hours, while an 80,000-word novella would be left for over 1,333 hours or around 56 days.

But what if you have a deadline that won’t allow the piece to be set aside for long? Here are three ways I’ve learned over the years to speed up the process.

Change the typeface

Microsoft Word is usually set up to type in Arial or Times New Roman, with equivalent typefaces available for Mac. However, there are countless others pre-installed on both operating systems. Save your work, then convert the text to something completely different.

I suggest picking wider letters than usual and increasing the font size, because the eye tends to focus on different parts of the same words, and any errors will seem more obvious.

Read it aloud

For the avoidance of doubt, there’s no need to read it to anyone, just as long as it’s out loud to yourself. This method is good for picking up poor grammar and clumsy sentence construction that reading alone often misses.

Make your computer read it out

I used to use Dragon NaturallySpeaking a lot, and that has a feature to read text from the page, although Word and other word processors also have this built in. I have a particular problem with typing form when I mean from, and vice-versa, and this method is particularly good at finding these.

Older speech synthesis is a little grating for longer pieces, but the inflections have become much more realistic over the last decade. Just ask the actor Val Kilmer, who was given a cutting-edge system after he lost his voice.

… and a disclaimer

Murphy’s Law dictates that a blog entry about proofreading will contain some errors that can’t be attributed to stylistic choices. I haven’t found any, but I’m sure my many readers will be all over it.

Finding Poetry Where It Ought Not to Be

Last week, I found myself looking at the Iraq Inquiry, published in 2016, for no reason other than curiosity. Its author Sir John Chilcot had compiled the document from hearings held between 2009 and 2011. As the full report runs to 2.6 million words, there is a search function on a dedicated website.

Unbelievably, report-writing shares a trait with poetry: the text is usually trimmed back to the bone, with no unnecessary words. There are some poets who take advantage of this to create found poetry.

I thought I would try this myself. Of all the words in the Chilcot Report, there are three direct references to poetry, and all of them are about the same event, namely the Basra Poetry Festival. This is mentioned in passing as part of a wider point about peacekeeping activities.

And it was during a meeting of my poetry group last week that the piece began to take shape. By the end of the meeting, I had a draft version of my final piece, formed of two paragraphs taken directly from one of the sections.

I still need to see whether the piece works after it’s been left aside for a while, but it’s looking like a winner this time.

Creating and Performing a Story in Six Hours

The tale in this entry happened on Tuesday evening of last week, just too late to be included on the blog.

At around 3:15pm, I received a message from a comedian pal. He was due to debut a new show that evening, but one of his warm-up acts had dropped out. He asked for anything of a spoken-word nature to fill a ten-minute gap.

I have plenty of pieces available, but Tuesday night is also when I lead National Novel Writing Month on a Discord server. Some of the members love to put together collaborative stories, so I gave them a challenge.

Starting with a line from a book, namely Clubbed to Death by Grant Hill, I invited them to add up to three lines of action or dialogue in each subsequent post, inviting them to be as humorous and/or surreal as possible. Subject to minor edits to keep the flow, the story was read out to an audience that very evening.

So here for your interest is the version created after editing.

We also have a recording of how it sounded at the venue; the technical quality isn’t great, such is the nature of live performance. Starting at 4:33, listen out for how I accidentally printed one sheet on top of another, rendering the print unreadable, but didn’t realise until I was well away from home.

Secret Projects Abound!

I’ve recently been asked by a poetry production company to write a letter of support for a funding application. As I’ve spent most of the week composing this, I was going to make it the subject of the entry.

However, once I actually began writing, I started to doubt myself. It’s fine to announce the good news once the funding is actually awarded, but posting details of the application is a much more private affair. I’ve chosen to leave that aside for the moment.

The other topic I’m dying to write about is a non-urgent pet project I’ve had in mind for months.

However, I’ve yet to ring-fence the time to start it and – while I dislike clichés intensely – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was spot-on when he said a goal without a plan is just a wish. The time spent writing about it could be time spent actually writing the project.

So what can I tell you about this week? The answer is a programme of events called Rep Stripped.

In 2019, Dundee Rep ran the inaugural Stripped event. Members from my open-mike group successfully applied to appear in a special hour-long poetry show alongside many other and varied acts. All the restrictions and uncertainty over the last two years has meant that 2022 is only the second edition of the programme.

For the avoidance of doubt, we’re not taking part in the Stripped programme this year, but I know people who are.

In particular, I’m looking forward to seeing Elfie Picket Theatre as I’ve met the owners a few times at their productions. Each ticket allows entry to more than one show, so I’m also looking forward to seeing what surprises are in store for us.