When you prepare food for a party, you start by deciding what kind of food you’re going to have. You need to know the big picture. American burgers? British fish and chips? Italian pasta? Odine Japanese Thai fusion?
When you write, you start by deciding what kind of writing you will be doing. (Actually, most of the time this is decided for you by your teacher, or even worse an examiner. Sorry.) Is it a story? A book review? A speech against the government’s ludicrous proposals to shorten the summer holidays? You need to know the big picture.
Back to party planning, and you’ve decided on Italian. Good choice. Now you need to make a list of all the ingredients you’ll need to get from Waitrose / your local market / your friend’s kitchen cupboards. Pasta. Tomatoes. Basil. Write them down so you don’t forget.
Same thing with the writing. You decide (or your teacher tells you) that you’re going to write a speech against the government’s outrageous proposals to shorten the summer holidays. You need to make a list of all the ingredients you’re going to need. Some pretty convincing statistics, for a s tart. Some expert opinions would also go down well. A few rhetorical questions will spice it up a bit too… Write them down so you don’t forget.
Off you trot to Sainsbury’s, or wherever you choose to spend your parents’ money, to gather all of the ingredients. It’s a bit boring, this bit – where you really want to be is in the kitchen, MasterCheffing it up. But don’t rush. You need to choose your ingredients carefully. Those tomatoes won’t taste of anything but room temperature tap water. That pasta’s going to taste like cardboard. If you want your guests to be able to Taste the Difference, you’re going to have to buy some Extra Special tomatoes, maybe even made by Heston, whoever he is. Spend a bit of time choosing. Take a bit of care. You could even ask an assistant which type of basil works best in a ragu sauce. (Only try this in Waitrose, who are the only supermarket to stock more than one type of basil, anyway.) Make sure you’ve got a good set of ingredients to work with. Your guests will thank you for it.
As you plan your writing, the temptation is to rush. This is the boring bit, you think. The bit I have to get over and done with. The fun stuff comes later. Don’t rush. If you scrimp and save at this stage, your speech is going to taste vaguely acceptable at best. Spend time choosing your content carefully. Think about what facts to include. Is that point about needing to spend 6 weeks of quality time with your dog actually relevant? (Clue: No.) Take care when making up statistics – don’t simply write down the first one that comes into your head; (100% of students surveyed said they were against shortening the summer holidays…) You could even talk to someone about what you’re going to write, like your English teacher, or someone else’s English teacher, or your mum’s friend who’s an English teacher. Make sure you’ve got a good set of ingredients to work with. Your reader will thank you for it.
Now it is sometimes the case, just as you’re heading towards the checkout, that you happen upon something that is absolutely perfect for your party. You hadn’t considered the possibility of tiramisu, but now it’s sitting there on the shelf in front of you, and it’s on 2-for-1 offer. Buy it. Add it to the mix. It’s good to go with the flow. Sometimes.
This can also happen as you prepare to write. You think you’ve got all your ideas written down, when out of the blue another one suddenly pops into your head. (This happens to me all the time. The ideas like to pop into my head only once I’ve got going, which is very inconsiderate of them. If they had any decency, they’d leap into it the moment I reached for my pen…) If it’s a relevant, strong, interesting idea, then add it to the mix.
Ingredients purchased, you arrive back at home and are faced with the task of turning it all into something delicious-tasting. This is when you need a method. Hopefully you have a recipe which gives you one. If you don’t, you’re either a gastronomical genius or heading towards disaster. Without a step-by-step guide of what to do, you will most likely come unstuck.
It’s the same deal with writing, I’m afraid. It’s not enough to have all the ingredients in front of you. You need a method. An order. A sequence. Which will you put first? Then what? Why? Shouldn’t that one go in the pot after that one? And so on. Work out your method before you start writing. Without a step-by-step guide of what to do, you will most likely come unstuck.
That’s it. You’re ready to write. Cook. Whatever. Here’s the good news. We all make mistakes. (That’s not the good news.) Here’s the good news: If you make mistakes when you’re cooking (big, serious ones, like burning everything and setting the kitchen on fire) you’ve wasted all that time and energy and money and kitchen. You’re going to have to go all the way back to the shops and start again – maybe even find a whole new kitchen. If you make a mistake when you’re writing, it’s completely free! You can just delete it, or cross it out, or paint some nail varnish over it, and start again! And that’s just one of the many reasons why writing is even better than cooking.