How to write – What to write.

I’ve often quoted Frank Smith when discussing writing.  In Writing and the writer, Smith distinguishes between “composition” and “transcription” in writing. “Composition” is deciding what you want to say, and “transcription” is what you have to do to say it. His advice is “The rule is simple: Composition and transcription must be separated, and transcription must come last. It is asking too much of anyone, and especially of students trying to improve all aspects of their writing ability, to expect that they can concern themselves with polished transcription at the same time that they are trying to compose. The effort to concentrate on spelling, handwriting, and punctuation at the same time that one is struggling with ideas and their expression not only interferes with composition but creates the least favorable situation in which to develop transcription skills as well” (Smith, 1982, p. 24).

After watching Juzo Itami’s 1995 film Shizukana seikatsu (A quiet life) recently I decided to read  Nobel prize winner Kenzaburu Oe – on whose novel the film is based. In his novel The Changeling, he deals with a similar situation:

“In the twenty-fifth year since Kogito had been continuously writing novels (a career he had embarked upon during his early twenties), he had become aware of the advent of a major turning point. That revelation wasn’t catalyzed by looking toward the future; rather, it was an insight that had gradually been illuminated by examining the past.

At that time, if Kogito had folded the page of his life-to-date in half, it would have been divided almost equally between the years before and after he’d become a novelist. In Kogito’s twenty-plus years as a novelist – excluding the first few years during which he hadn’t been consciously thinking about “how to write” – he had always perceived the two major questions of “how to write” and “what to write” as a pair of intertwined vines, and writing his novels had been a matter of somehow finding a way to unravel those tangled vines.

Before long, his consciousness of “writing” became hideously hypertrophied, and it began to interfere with his ability to begin a new writing project. As he was struggling to find a way out of this predicament, looking for some way to go on writing, Kogito came up with a desperate contrivance. He wouldn’t be able to get a solid sense of “how to write” until he actually began. Therefore, he had to start writing immediately, cranking out a very rough draft the minute he had even a vague idea of the direction he wanted to go in. If he didn’t do that, he would never be able to embark on writing another novel at all.

If,  as a next step, he examined what he had already drafted, one section at a time, that would help him to establish “how to write.” When he focused on what he had already written, line by line, the search for “what to write” would no longer be like casting a net over the surface of dark water. By following this simple formula Kogito was able to begin to write novels once again, and that was the crucial turning point.”

Kenzaburo Oe The Changeling (2000, pp. 262-263)


Smith, F. (1982). Writing and the writer. London: Heinemann.

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