Writers on writing: Ian Rankin

On the face of it there may be little similarity between the social sciences and crime fiction, but I often find that there is a great deal to be learnt from professional novelists. The one thing we do have in common is the need to communicate ideas through writing. One of the reasons why successful novelists are successful is their ability to write and in many cases to write quickly. Moreover, one often finds that successful writers have given considerable thought to their craft, to the process of writing, something which data-obsessed social scientists perhaps do less of. In this context I particularly liked this interview with one of my favourite novelists, the Scottish crime writer, Ian Rankin, in The Globe and Mail in which he outlines five habits which can lead to successful writing. Not all of these are applicable to research in the social sciences. In my own writing I have yet to encounter the knotty problem of writing a sex scene, and in non-fiction writing the ending is rarely much of a surprise. Nevertheless, Rankin’s advice about the importance of getting into the habit of writing, is a lesson from which we could all benefit:

Just keep writing

If I’m working on a novel, I try to write every single day. It may not be much, but it’s seven days a week. I think that by writing quickly you inject pace. If a book is written quickly, it tends to be a quick read as well. My first draft will be very rough, but it won’t take me much more than 30 or 40 days. I remember one writer that I met couldn’t start chapter two until he got chapter one just right. That’s just not how I work. My rule is to just get the thing down on paper. Even if there are mistakes, misjudgments, I’ll ignore that and know that I can go back later. I remember I was talking with an agent one time. He asked how things were going and I said they were going great, but that I was just about to take a break because I have to research this one thing. He said no, no – just make a note to yourself to do the research later and keep writing. I save a lot of time these days by doing the bulk of the research between the first and the second draft. Research can be a rabbit hole and you don’t come out for weeks. Once you have a first draft, you know what you need and that saves a lot of time.

It is important to remember, as Rankin acknowledges, that there are different approaches to writing and that some people would baulk at the notion of writing a quick first draft before the research is complete. But it is hard to dismiss the notion that when one has some momentum it is probably better to carry on writing than to stop to check every fact, as long as one remembers to check them later. As someone who can spend a great deal of time chasing ever more data, Rankin’s characterisation of research as ‘a rabbit hole… you don’t come out of for weeks’ is particularly striking. We’re not writing fiction so there are times when we can’t just make it up, but there are also times when we all need to avoid the rabbit holes and just keep writing.

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