Writing as communication: a game for writers 1

The first rule of writing is to communicate clearly. Here’s an example of a piece of writing that fails as an act of communication, and a game I use to remind writers what a complex technology written communication is.

Video transcript follows below:

I spend a lot of time reading unpublished writing. I’ve done this when I’ve read slush piles for publishers, and also when working with students who are studying writing. And one of the biggest problems beginning writers have, and it’s a problem that I’ve often had, is that their writing fails the first fundamental test – it fails as an act of communication.

See, writing is before all else a highly advanced and complex communication system. It’s a method by which an idea can be communicated from one person to another person without those people having ever met – possibly without them having even lived in the same century. Writing is one of the amazing achievements of human civilization, and it isn’t easy to use.

Let me give you an example of a piece of writing that fails as an act of communication. This is a story called ‘Killing Joe’:

‘There’s nothing to be afraid of, I promise.’

‘I can’t help it. I’m–’

‘Shhh!’

‘I– I–’

‘Try to sit still – it’s OK.’

I could feel the faces staring at me. Their faces flickering and ghostly in the strange light. I knew I needed to get out of there. I was panicking. I saw a glimmer of light at the door. Suddenly, a beam of light struck me in the face.

That was when it rose up and hit me. The fear was banging, rattling, shaking my ear drums.

‘You need to leave,’ said a man.

‘You’re dead, asshole!’ The words boomed out as if yelled by some evil God. Then all I could hear was the gunfire. Bang! Bang! Bang! I flinched and covered my ears.

‘Come on,’ he said, ‘let’s get you out of here.’

‘Good idea,’ said the man.

Suddenly I was crawling, stumbling across legs and arms.

Bang! Bang! Bang! ‘So long, sucker!’ boomed the huge demonic voice. My feet were crunching something on the floor. And then, suddenly, it was over. We were in a corridor, squinting against the bright light.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked.

‘I think so,’ I said. ‘I’m so sorry – you must think me an idiot.’ I started to sob as he put his arm around me in consolation.

What on earth is going on? Well, believe it or not, it’s actually a story about a woman called Katie who has a panic attack while on a date at the cinema. At the end of this video, I’ll show you what the author thought he was communicating.

But first, here’s a game I like to play with writers to remind them how difficult it is to communicate clearly using nothing but written language.

I divide the writers into pairs and number them either one or two. Then I send all the number ones to wait outside the room. I then give the number twos an image such as this and I ask them to write down instructions for how to draw the image. When the number twos return to the room, they have to try to recreate the image based only on the words their partner wrote down. This is really hard.

Sometimes a pair does remarkably well and their picture is almost perfect. More often, however, the drawn image bears only a slight resemblance to the original. Sometimes the results are, frankly, a wee bit bizarre.

The moral of the game? Writing is an act of communication and communicating clearly and accurately is the first and most important job of every writer.

So what was ‘Killing Joe’ trying to communicate?

Here goes. First off, it needed a new title – one that communicates rather than obfuscates. It’s now called ‘The Date.’

Once Tom and I had developed an easy intimacy – weeks, maybe months, after our first date – he asked me why I hadn’t thought to warn him about my panic attacks. But when do you mention a thing like that? ‘Hey, Katie, do you fancy seeing a movie some time?’ ‘Sure, Tom. By the way, I suffer panic attacks.’

The movie we went to see on our first date was a cheesy thriller called Killing Joe. Tom said we’d enjoy it ‘in a camp sort of way.’ But even during the trailers, as we sat, popcorn placed divisively between us, I felt something bad was going to happen. Midway through the film, I started to sweat and hyperventilate, and Tom must have heard. At first he laughed, teasing me, thinking I was excited by the film.

Then he saw I was unwell and started to whisper consolations. He patted my hand and said, ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of, I promise.’

‘I can’t help it. I’m–’

‘Shhh!’ said the woman in the row in front.

‘I– I–’

‘Try to sit still – it’s OK.’

I could feel the rest of the audience staring at me. Their faces were flickering and ghostly, illuminated by the car chase on screen. I knew I needed to get out of there. I was panicking. I could see the neon glow of the emergency exit sign, and a line of light at the foot of the door. Suddenly, a beam of light struck me in the face – it was the usher’s torch.

That was when the fear rose up and hit me. It was banging, rattling, shaking my ear drums.

‘You need to leave,’ said the usher.

‘You’re dead, asshole!’ The words, boomed out by the cinema’s giant speakers, sounded like the yell of some evil God. Then all I could hear was the sound-effect gunfire. Bang! Bang! Bang! I flinched and covered my ears.

‘Come on,’ Tom said. ‘Let’s get you out of here.’

‘Good idea,’ said the usher.

Suddenly I was crawling, stumbling across legs and arms. People were standing and tutting and protecting their drinks and popcorn.

Bang! Bang! Bang! ‘So long, sucker!’ boomed the hero of Killing Joe. My feet were crunching popcorn into the carpet. And then, suddenly, it was over. We were in a corridor, squinting against the bright light.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked.

‘I think so,’ I said. ‘I’m so sorry – you must think me an idiot.’ I started to sob as he put his arm around me in consolation.

That story still has a lot of problems, but it passes the first test – it works as an act of communication.

Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.

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