The entire last week was spent poring over several chapters of a 30,000 thesis on sea level rise in Western Australia. I was not writing these chapters, as you can probably guess, but instead was copyediting and proofreading. And, man, did it require a different head!
I had almost forgotten how different the style of an essay is to a piece of fiction. Instead of floating around in the heads of characters, musing over plot twists and faffing about with imagery, I was thrown head first into a barrage of facts, figures, analyses and references. I took a one way ticket from a flowery field of words, to a stark, sealed room of reasoning. And, for a moment, I felt claustrophobic.
It was only when I reminded myself I did not need to understand every single equation or graph, but only the nature of how these equations and graphs were presented to a reader, did I see my way to fresh air. It wasn’t me submitting the PhD on climate change and the effects of coastal flooding (everyone can breathe a sigh of relief here!); I was simply working to make someone else’s research readable, allowing their words to flow — with the correct use of punctuation, and by suggesting more suitable words to get their point across.
I say simply. It wasn’t really simple. But it certainly wasn’t writing a thesis.
Rhythm of words
The most interesting thing I noticed was that the rhythm of the words, between fact and fiction, is very different. The rhythm of the words you read can dramatically effect your experience of the writing. A writer may add specific emphasis to certain words, giving one word weight over another, changing the meaning of what you are reading. This is true for both fact and fiction, but it seems to me, the rhythm of fiction is more melodic than the rhythm of fact. To explain what I am trying to say further, to me, writing fiction is singing, and writing fact is quite simply, banging that drum.
Please don’t misunderstand me. There is definitely a time to bang that drum. But there is also a good time to sing.
Interestingly, last week I started a free online course on fiction writing (https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/start-writing-fiction-3/register), and one of the exercises was to write a paragraph with one fact and three fictitious elements, and then another paragraph with one fictitious element and three facts. Here was my contribution:
Three facts, one fiction
It’s the one! I’ve finally found the dress in which I’m walking down the aisle. It fits perfectly, although a little long without heels. It falls about my curves in lacy elegance, making me feel beautiful, special and loved.
My mum draws out a crumpled tissue from her bag, delicately drying her eyes. Through quivering lips, a smile in her eyes, she says, ‘My darling. I hate it.’
One fact, three fiction
Today I took a walk in the mountains. The sun sparkled through the snow capped pine trees and I lost myself, for a moment, in the solitude and beauty. A deer blinked a greeting from across a trickling stream and then dashed away, a reminder of my intrusion into a natural world.
I want to live in a place far removed from day to day suburbia.
I think it’s pretty obvious which elements are fiction and which elements are fact (at least I hope so!) It seems that when a writer wants to get their facts across, rather than wanting to take their reader on a journey, the words become sharper, like somebody is talking to you (not reading to you), and there’s absolutely no messing about.
Why don’t you try the exercise above? I would love to hear from you in the comments. Or why not sign up for the course? It’s not too late.
So until next time, imagine, if you will, the cymbals in my head as I listen to the voice of the thesis. I’m enjoying the rhythm, I’m enjoying the challenge. I’m finding simple pleasure in giving strength to someone else’s words.
But it will be nice to get back to my flowery field — and lie in it 😉