Writing – when it simply has to be right

What’s the most important thing you’ve ever written?

A couple of weeks ago, I had to craft what for me is probably the most momentous collection of words since I started, at my mother’s knee, to put crayon, pencil or pen to paper. Or loops and whorls to keyboard, now.

In recent months, I’ve been banging on about incisive, zestful writing and how to choose your words to better effect – as ITI Bulletin readers, BP17 conference-goers, and the lovely attendees of my own wee clear-writing course may recall.

It was time to put my freshly flexed penman’s muscles to the test.

If you’re a professional translator or editor, a copywriter or some other breed of wordsmith, then you’ll know the importance of good writing. Of placing those commas with precision to convey the exact meaning. Of getting your point across crisply, unencumbered by ambiguity or stultifying, guff-stuffed paragraphs that just won’t quit. Of engaging and – why not? – even entertaining your reader with a flowing rhythm and an added dash of assonance.

That all applies to any text. Especially if it’s to have a high profile or a wide circulation, a hefty price tag or a vital mission.

The text I wrote was for the consumption of no more than twenty people. Only a handful of them would actually read it. It would be used once and never see the light of day again. I was paid nothing.

Yet it had to hit the mark.

The content required careful selection and arrangement, to be representative and fair yet brief. The tone demanded delicacy, and I needed to be in the right headspace to capture it properly. There was to be a hint of levity, towards the beginning would be best, but taste was of the essence. The piece had to be sincere but unsentimental, devoid of showy eloquence or empty rhetoric. Showing off was a no-no. It called for a sure style, to reflect the depth of feeling and to elevate the words above the merely prosaic, with a rhythm that let it flow and build and sing. And then fade to silence.

I put all I had into that little text. I hope – at least, I’m told – that the result was worthy of its aim and did justice to the occasion and the person for whom it was written.

Some things in life come around just once, and that’s the only chance you have to get it right.

One such thing is a funeral tribute.

Rest in peace, Mum.

For Patricia Lawrence, 1936–2017