My ultimate aim with this research is to write a significant piece of work – a book – to tell the story of the crew of B for Baker, who they were, where they came from and what part they played in the overall context of the bomber offensive. Much of this blog has been about the actual research that I’ve completed in this project. But I haven’t looked much at that important second bit – the writing thing. And that’s probably the bit that I need most practice in. What follows, then, is a basic framework for how I approach writing a short piece. It will need to be developed when I get around to writing the book that I’d like to end up with, because that will probably end up significantly longer than anything I’ve written before, but it’s a place to start from. This is, in broad terms, the process I use.
My writing evolves through a number of distinct phases. First comes the research part, where I find sources, take notes and build up a picture in my mind of what actually happened. Only when I think I have enough information to have the bare bones of a story in my head do I actually start to write.
My first draft is usually not a particularly eloquent or efficient piece of writing. My aim initially is to simply get everything down on paper (or, more correctly, on my computer screen). Usually I’m writing a historical story so I work more or less chronologically. At this stage I’m not worried too much by structure, length or style. I’m simply using my notes and research and putting everything relevant into a document. This process will quickly reveal any gaps in my research, and it is here that I will go back to my sources to try and fill those gaps. My aim is simply to tell the story – it doesn’t yet matter how long the story is, or how easy it is to read. It just needs to have every part in it. The resulting ‘first draft’ can sometimes be very, very long – for Bomber Command: Failed to Return it was almost 50% longer than my allocated word limit. I like to reference as I go along (usually by footnotes). This means that at all subsequent stages I know exactly where all of my evidence comes from and can easily go back to the primary sources to fact-check if required later on. The references are not normally formatted correctly yet – the important thing is that I know precisely where to find what I’m looking for if needed,
The second draft is where the structure gets fixed up. This is where I shift passages around into a more logical, flowing sequence – even if the language used at this point is far from flowing. A clear introduction, body and conclusion develops (evidently Year 12 English taught me something!). I’m still not too worried about length or efficiency of phrase.
The third phase of my writing is where I start getting creative. The emphasis to this point has been in getting the story right. From here, however, I’ve got the story itself organised. How the story is told is what concerns me next. If writing to a tight word limit, this is where the culling begins. Irrelevant bits get cut and long-winded passages get shortened. Awkward passages get re-written into more efficient language. Parts get condensed or lengthened if further emphasis is required.
By this stage, the main work is just about done. Phase four – the edit – can now begin. I give the piece the once-over myself, checking spelling, grammar, formatting and references. Then I call in outside help – and it’s amazing what another pair of eyes will spot. My sister and mother provided their ‘red pen’ services for Bomber Command: Failed to Return. The revised draft gets revised again, and again, and sometimes again. At this point it’s not unusual to go back to phase three to re-jig phrases or keep culling if I’m really pushing a word limit. Spelling and grammar are given a last check and references are checked for consistency and formatted correctly.
Then, at last, the piece is ready to be submitted.
© 2012 Adam Purcell