The Nowhere Office

I reviewed Julia Hobsbawm’s The Nowhere Office and Jonathan Malesic’s The End of Burnout for the TLS in February:

Change, writes Julia Hobsbawm, happens “slowly and then all of a sudden completely”. What Hobsbawm calls the “Nowhere Office” – the hybrid workspace that floats between work and home – may seem like Covid’s gift to the world but it was long in the making. For her it is the culmination of trends that have been emerging since the 1980s, when office hours stopped being strictly nine-to-five and the search for an elusive work–life balance began. The pandemic “broke the last threads holding the embedded customs and practices together”.

The Nowhere Office is buoyant about this placeless workspace. Offices, Hobsbawm predicts, will no longer be run by a creed of unthinking presenteeism and will become places we visit for networking, collaboration and community-building. The rest of the work will be done at home or on the move. We will happily cut across different time zones, accessing our files anywhere via digital clouds and dividing up work across a seven-day week, carving out “air pockets of free time” rather than a two-day weekend. The main divide will be between the “hybrid haves” and the “hybrid have nots” – those who are able to move seamlessly between online and offline and those who are not.

Hobsbawm wants to “put the human back in the corporate machine”, and her instincts are all good. She understands that working from home can mean loneliness, isolation and the bleeding of work into our personal lives. And she concedes that “despite the apparent flexibility and freedoms, many inequalities remain and too many people still have to work too hard and too long”. But what if the apparent flexibility and freedoms are the problem? What if the nowhereness of work means that work ends up being everywhere, and we can never disengage from its demands? For Hobsbawm the solution is to give employees more choice and negotiate their consent. They must be disciplined in separating work from life, and their bosses must trust them to work unsupervised. “It will be obvious if people are working well”, she writes sunnily, announcing the end of “the age of being violently busy”.

The book is interspersed with interviews with practitioners and proponents of the Nowhere Office. Most of them are business leaders: chief strategy officers, brand presidents, digital entrepreneurs, investors. Their insights are worth having, even if Hobsbawm’s mimicry of their corporate-speak about “win-win models” and “siloed thinking” does little for her prose style. But one wonders if those lower down the corporate hierarchy might have a less heady take on the Nowhere Office.

According to Hobsbawm, theses changes are unstoppable. The future is set fair and all we can do is catch up. “The desk is all but over as a built-in feature of office life”, she says. “Sofas, small theatres, spaces to convene and converse in will be ‘in’.” Her brisk verdicts on the new reality reminded me of that much-repeated formula online, declaring that some new phenomenon “is a thing now”. But why is it a thing, and should it be a thing? The future is neither uniform nor inevitable. It feels too soon to make bold calls, before the pandemic is even over, about what the workplace of the future will look like.

Hobsbawm summarily dismisses critics such as Josh Cohen, David Graeber and Sarah Jaffe as part of “an emergent purist camp” which holds that “work represents a failure of society, certainly of capitalism, and that work is essentially not an opportunity but a threat”. But these critics do not say that work is “pointless”, as she claims, only that a turbo-capitalist conception of work makes excessive and toxic demands on us. Their writing deserves to be engaged with rather than caricatured.

Hobsbawm would probably put Jonathan Malesic in the purist camp. But his acutely felt investigation of work burnout as an “ailment of the soul” makes his the more thought-provoking and substantial of these two books. Malesic is a recovering academic, a former professor of theology at a small Catholic college in Pennsylvania. Like many academics he began his career with unsustainably high ideals, believing he was “a citizen in the republic of letters”. He discovered that much of it was just a job, with unrewarding tasks, soul-sapping hassle, pointless politicking and fears of redundancy. His students, most of whom were studying theology as a core requirement, did not share his enthusiasms and spent his classes looking blank-faced and bored. Soon he was lying in bed for hours when he should have been working, repeatedly watching the video of the Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush song “Don’t give up” and self-medicating with ice cream and beer. After eleven years he gave up the tenure-track position he had worked so hard for. Alongside the sense of failure, he felt intense guilt that he had come to hate such a coveted and well-rewarded job.

As Malesic admits, burnout is something of a buzzword, “an often-empty signifier onto which we can project virtually any agenda”. Our vague definitions of it, and the lack of consensus on how to diagnose and measure it, raises the question of how much we really want to eradicate it. Diagnosing oneself with burnout can, after all, be self- flattering. To be burned out is to be a modern, a victim of the age, a martyr to one’s own high ideals. Burnout’s historical antecedents, the now-forgotten soul sicknesses of acedia, melancholia and neurasthenia, were similar sources of both pride and shame.

Malesic defines burnout usefully as “the experience of being pulled between expectation and reality at work”. We burn out not just because we are exhausted but because our hearts are broken. Our love for work, which we saw as the path to social status and spiritual flourishing, went unrequited. Even in the good times, work could not deliver all we asked of it, and these are not the good times. Aided by market deregulation, employers now see workers as a fixed cost to be reduced. Outsourcing, zero-hours and precarious work have expanded, while more hours are demanded of everyone. The funky offices of tech start-ups, with their games rooms and sleeping pods, are, Malesic writes, “designed to keep you at work forever”. The life hacks touted as burnout antidotes – mindfulness, getting more sleep, working smarter – are superstitions, “individual, symbolic actions that are disconnected from burnout’s real causes”.

Malesic visits an artisan pottery studio in Minnesota, a Dallas nonprofit doing anti-poverty work and several Benedictine monasteries, and spends time among artists with disabilities who cannot find paid work but who form richly supportive creative communities. He learns that work need not be the lodestar of our lives. To heal our burnout, we need to lower our expectations. Malesic now teaches writing part-time at a Dallas university, just one or two classes per semester. He no longer expects the life of the mind to be soul-nourishing and is a better and more patient teacher for it.

We need to see work as, well, work. But this does not mean that it should cease to matter. Malesic cites the French phrase “un travail de bénédictin”– a Benedictine labour – to describe a project that demands quiet, steady effort over a long time to bring it to fruition. This kind of work has little value in a world of annual pay reviews and key performance indicators. But a richly satisfying Benedictine labour can cure us of that self-lacerating cycle of looming deadlines and short-term goals that ultimately benefits only our paymasters.

These very different books have one perspective in common: they both see the pandemic as a chance for reflection and change. “Right now, we have a rare opportunity to rewrite our cultural expectations of work”, Jonathan Malesic writes, “and I hope we will.” So do I.

The Premonitions Bureau

I reviewed Sam Knights’s book The Premonitions Bureau for the TLS in May:

For most of human history, people have believed that we can see into the future. The Bible is filled with prophecies and premonitory dreams; the ancient Greeks put their faith in oracles and in destinies that no mortal being could swerve. “That which is fated cannot be fled”, warned Pindar. As Oedipus discovered, what is going to happen to us becomes what we choose to do.

The Premonitions Bureau, Sam Knight’s elegant and illuminating work of cultural history, transports us back to a mid-twentieth-century Britain still clinging to this faith in precognition – the extra-sensory perception of future events. Precognition, which hinted at “undiscovered reaches of physics and of the mind”, managed to escape the taint of the occult that clung to phenomena such as ghosts and ectoplasm. It teetered on the edges of scientific respectability.

In 1927, J. W. Dunne, an aeronautical engineer, published the bestselling book An Experiment with Time, which remained in print for more than half a century. In 1902, while serving in the Boer War, Dunne had dreamt of a volcano about to erupt on a French colonial island. A few weeks later, he got hold of a newspaper which reported that the eruption of Mont Pelée, on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, had killed 40,000 people. Dunne’s book was a thirty-year history of his own dreams and their intimations of the future. He explained it all with reference to the new fields of relativity theory and quantum mechanics, which theorized that time’s linearity was no simple matter. Dreams that predicted future happenings became known as “Dunne dreams”. On Dunne’s advice, many of his readers began leaving pencil and paper by their beds so they could write down their dreams on waking.

J. B. Priestley, in plays such as Time and the Conways (1937) and An Inspector Calls (1945), drew on Dunne’s work. Priestley also popularized Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity, which suggested that events could be linked outside the normal logic of cause and effect, such as when a dream foretells an event in the waking world. In Time and the Conways, Alan Conway tells his sister Kay that the secret to life is that time is not monodirectional but eternally present, and that at any given moment we see only “a cross section of ourselves”.

At the heart of Knight’s story lies a remarkable character called John Barker. When we first meet him, in 1966, he is a forty-two-year-old psychiatrist working at Shelton Hospital in Shropshire, one of Britain’s sprawling and overcrowded mental institutions. Barker worked tirelessly to improve conditions at Shelton by phasing out the more brutal treatments, such as electroconvulsive therapy administered without drugs. But he was also frustrated with the professional timidity of his field. Fringe areas dismissed as psychic or paranormal were just waiting to be absorbed into mainstream science, he believed. He was a member of Britain’s Society for Psychical Research and fascinated by precognition.

The book begins with the event that galvanized Barker: the Aberfan disaster of October 21, 1966, when a coal-tip avalanche buried a primary school, killing 144 people, mostly children. The precarious-looking tips above Aberfan had long worried locals, and many spoke of having disturbing thoughts and visions before the disaster. Given how much Aberfan had pierced the national consciousness, Barker decided to ask the public if they had felt any presentiment of it. He contacted Peter Fairley, the science editor of the London Evening Standard, who agreed to publicize his appeal. Barker received seventy-six responses from what he called “percipients”. After prodding them for details and witnesses, he concluded that precognition was a common human trait, perhaps as common as left-handedness. He thought that a small subset of the population might experience “pre-disaster syndrome”, somewhat similar to the way in which twins were thought to feel each other’s pain remotely.

The problem was that, as with most similar evidence, the Aberfan data had been scientifically compromised by being collected after the event. So just before Christmas 1966, Barker and Fairley approached Charles Wintour, the Evening Standard’s editor, about setting up a “Premonitions Bureau”. For a year, the newspaper’s readers would be asked to send in their forebodings of unwelcome events, which would be collated and then compared with actual events. The Standard’s newsroom was soon inundated with letters and telephone calls.

Barker envisaged the Premonitions Bureau as a “central clearing house” for all portents of calamities, “a data bank for the nation’s dreams and visions”. This crowd-sourcing of the collective unconscious recalled the work of an earlier research organization, Mass Observation, which also made use of unpaid volunteers to create “weather maps of public feeling”. Barker hoped that the results would eventually be uploaded to a computer database, and that the Bureau would issue early warnings of potential disasters.

Barker and Fairley appeared often in newspapers, as well as on BBC2’s Late Night Line-Up. They also turned up with a group of percipients to be interviewed on ITV’s The Frost Programme, but were dropped mid-show, probably because David Frost worried how the group might come across. “‘Weirdos’ would be too strong a description,” Fairley wrote later, “but they were certainly different.” Fairley put his own raised profile to good use, going on to present ITV’s coverage of the moon landings.

The Bureau received hundreds of warnings, most of which proved, predictably, to be blind alleys or impossible to verify. On quiet mornings, Fairley would go through the letters pile in search of racing tips. Two respondents, though, had real staying power: Kathleen Middleton, a piano teacher from Edmonton, and Alan Hencher, a Post Office switchboard operator from Dagenham. They predicted a whole run of unfortunate events, including the Torrey Canyon oil spill, the death of a Russian cosmonaut on his re-entry to earth, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and the Hither Green rail crash in which forty-nine people died. Distressingly for Barker, they both then foresaw his own death (which nicely sets up the end of the book).

Knight’s refreshing approach to his subject matter avoids being either too cynical or too credulous. “Premonitions are impossible, and they come true all the time”, he writes. He knows how hard it is for us storytelling animals to separate an event from the link we give it in a causal chain. A few weeks before their wedding, he and his wife saw three magpies, and “never asked for a test to confirm the sex of our daughter because we felt we had already been informed”.

Time is an arrow. The second law of thermodynamics rules that there is no way we can know about things before they happen. Entropy – the cup of tea that cools as you drink it, the leaves that fall in autumn, the lines that form on your forehead – is the concrete proof that time only runs forwards. And yet some contemporary theoretical physicists, such as Carlo Rovelli, suggest that the explanatory power of entropy, which makes sense of our lives and our deaths, has caused us to give it too much credence. Perhaps we only see the small part of reality where this rule holds. Knight feels no need to come down on one side or the other. Instead, he uses the theme of precognition to explore deep existential questions about time, causation and the meaning of life.

The Premonitions Bureau is full of lightly dispensed research, gathered from the archives of the Society for Psychical Research and interviews with the families and associates of the main characters. Knight’s method and tone will be familiar to those who have read his Guardian Long Reads on everyday subjects such as the British sandwich industry and Uber’s takeover of London, or his New Yorker “Letter from the UK”. He deploys two highly effective narrative techniques. The first is the deadpan drop of bits of stray information. We learn that a survivor of the Hither Green rail crash was the seventeen-year-old Robin Gibb, of the Bee Gees; that Barker was a keen surfer, although overweight and at least two decades older than his fellow longboard pioneers; that Fairley chased stories on a fold-up motorcycle and that only when he died did his widow and four children learn of his secret second family. As well as being weirdly fascinating, these facts add authenticating specificity to the story.

Knight’s second technique is the narrative handbrake turn, where the story veers off without warning, the significance of this new thread only emerging later. “In the 1690s, a young tutor named Martin Martin was commissioned to map and document life in the western islands of Scotland”, he might begin, out of the blue. Or: “One day in 1995, in the German cathedral city of Mainz, a fifty-one-year-old woman went to hospital …”. The creatively jarring juxtaposition of human voices and stories reminded me a little of Tales of a New Jerusalem, David Kynaston’s multi-volume history of postwar Britain. Knight, like Kynaston, leaves us with a sense of the stubborn strangeness of other people and of the recent past, without ever seeming condescending to either. Other people, his book reveals, are infinitely and incurably odd. Still, they might just be on to something.

Ten Writing Tips

During lockdown in the autumn of 2020, when we were teaching online, I posted a writing tip to our students every week. I thought I would post them here now in case anyone else finds them useful.

Tip 1: Start writing earlier

When you’re working on an essay or piece of coursework, start writing early on in the process. Don’t spend all your time on the reading and research and leave the writing until the last minute. As an English student, writing is your laboratory, your way of thinking – how you find out what you really want to say. Make sure you leave enough time for it.

Students sometimes get discouraged when they have written a first draft of their essay and it feels awkward or stilted. But that’s like saying your cake tastes awful when all you have done is mix some butter, eggs, flour and sugar in a bowl. You haven’t finished making it yet. Only when you have hacked your sentences into a basic shape can you see the many other things wrong with them. Only by putting the words into a semblance of order can you see how muddled they still are. An essay is too big and complex to hold entirely in your head, so you need to have the words in front of you to really think it through.

A defining quality of writing, as opposed to speaking, is that it can be redone. You can keep working on it until it’s ready. Writing is rewriting. ‘Writing,’ the American author Kurt Vonnegut said, ‘allows mediocre people who are patient and industrious to revise their stupidity, to edit themselves into something like intelligence.’ Not that I’m saying you’re mediocre. I’m just saying that the great thing about writing is that you can keep reworking it until you sound like the best, most perceptive and insightful version of yourself. And who wouldn’t want to spend time doing that?

Tip 2: Trust your ear

The best way to iron out mistakes and awkwardness in your writing is to read your work aloud. Trust your ear. Language is innately rhythmic and musical. Even the way you say your phone number to someone else has a rhythm, as you split it into two or three phrases. That is why we find the automated voices of satnavs and public address systems, with their random rise and fall, so alien. They don’t sound human because they don’t speak with human rhythms.

If you get the rhythm of your writing right, the other things tend to fall into place. Most people know the grammatical rules of writing more than they think they do. You probably know where the subject and verb should go in a sentence, even if you can’t identify them. (Most people can’t.) You know the subject and verb go at that point in the sentence, and in that order, because it sounds right. If it sounds right, it’s probably grammatically right; if it sounds wrong, it’s probably grammatically wrong. You should certainly trust your ear more than the grammar check on MS Word, which is pretty useless.

You can test the flow and sense of your writing when you read your work aloud, because the ear is very sensitive to dissonance, in the same way that you can tell if a singer has hit a bum note, even if you don’t know what the note should be. Reading your work aloud slows you down (you read much quicker when you’re reading silently) so you’re more likely to notice if something sounds wrong. Reading aloud forces you to renotice what you have written.

There is an even better way. When you read your own writing aloud you already know what you meant, and you augment that meaning by accenting and stressing, speaking faster or slower, higher or lower – all ways of making your meaning clearer and reducing ambiguity. Better, if you can bear it, to get a friend to read out your sentences for you. If they stumble over a word or phrase, it might be a clue to revisit it.

Tip 3: Cut all unnecessary words

Which of these sentences sounds better to you?

  1. When I was a child, I used to have a terrible temper.
  2. As a child, I used to have a terrible temper.
  3. As a child I had a terrible temper.

I say the second is better than the first, and the third is best. You don’t need both when and used to, because they convey the same thing. And, come to think to think of it, you don’t need both as and used to either, because they too convey the same thing. The third sentence takes the least time and effort to read. Cutting unnecessary words always makes your writing cleaner and more elegant.

For instance, repeating a word in a sentence can sound clunky:

By choosing to narrate the novel in the first person the author makes the novel more vivid.

Better version: The use of the first person makes the novel more vivid.

The story of Cinderella is a well-known story.

Better: The story of Cinderella is well-known.

The book’s title establishes the theme of the book; the book’s first paragraph establishes the voice of the book.

The book’s title establishes its theme; the first paragraph establishes its tone.

Also, do you really need all those vague qualifiers like very and rather, and do you need two vague adjectives when one would do?

This piece of writing is a very poignant and heartfelt one.

The writing is heartfelt.

It’s easier for the reader to quickly grasp the meaning of your sentence if you cut all needless words:

Portraying the nature of people to be driven by violent instinct is present in many other novels.

People driven by violent instinct appear in many other novels.

Most memoirs choose to mirror the strict chronological nature of life itself within the structure of their works, although this is not always the case. Some memoir writers choose to employ non-chronological structures.

Most memoirs mirror the chronological nature of life in their structure, but not all.

So: write more words than you need and then go through your draft cutting the ones you don’t need. Just as your speech is full of ums and ers and repetitions, your first go at any piece of writing will be full of unnecessary verbiage.

A writer makes meaning not just by adding words but by taking them away. The playwright David Mamet said that ‘Omission is a form of creation.’ Cutting words is as creative an act as writing them. It often makes your meaning clearer to yourself. It’s a bit like being a sculptor, looking for the beautiful form hidden in that rough block of marble by chipping away at all the superfluous stone. Cutting words has this same creative quality. Sometimes it can liberate a meaning that you weren’t quite aware of but that was waiting there to be found.

Tip 4: Learn the power of the full stop

In the age of texting and social media, full stops are going out of fashion. The dialogic visual language of texting speech bubbles, pinging left and right on your phone, has little use for full stops. A single-line text needs no punctuation to show that it has ended. Instead of a full stop, you press send. Studies have shown that young people tend to interpret full stops in texts as curt or passive-aggressive.

But writing is not a speech-balloon text waiting on a response. The point of writing is to communicate in a way that does not require you to explain it any further. A sentence gives words a finished form that should need no clarification. It is its own small island of sense. So, with any kind of semi-formal writing addressed to people you don’t know well (such as the tutor marking your essay), the full stop, and where you decide to put it, are crucial.

Only when the full stop arrives can the meaning of a sentence be fulfilled. The full stop should be like a satisfying little click that moves your prose along slightly so that the next sentence can pick up where it left off. If you want to write well, learn to love the full stop. Love it above all other punctuation marks, and see it as the goal towards which all your words move. It is the most powerful punctuation mark: don’t forget to use it.

Tip 5: Don’t make your sentences any longer than they need to be

Last time, I wrote about full stops. Here is another reason why full stops are important: every sentence places a burden on the reader’s short-term memory. A sentence throws a thought into the air and leaves the reader vaguely dissatisfied or confused until that thought has come in to land. The reader has to hold all the sentence’s words in their head until the full stop arrives to close the circle of meaning. The full stop provides relief, allowing them to take a mental breath.

The longer your sentence is, the more the reader has to hold in their head and the more chance there is of something becoming mangled or unclear. This doesn’t mean you should avoid writing long sentences – I will discuss how useful they are in one of my later tips – but it probably means that, if in doubt, you should put a full stop in. A lot of student writing is full of sentences that are longer than they need to be.

When you’re writing a first draft, I suggest you start with short, simple sentences. If you start short like this, it’s easy to add detail and texture, and combine short sentences into longer, more complex ones. But if you start writing long, complicated sentences before you’ve worked out what you really think, then you will find them hard to take apart and simplify. Start simple and make it complex; don’t start convoluted and then have to unravel it all.

Tip 6: Vary your sentence length

The best way to make your writing sound fresh and musical is to vary the length of your sentences. Paragraphs tend to work well when they are a group of sentences of varied lengths. At the end of every sentence there is what’s called a cadence – a drop in pitch (whether you’re reading it aloud or silently) as the full stop arrives. This signals to the reader that the sentence, and the sentiment, are done. Varied sentence length makes for varied cadences. This makes writing breathe, move and sing.

Short and long sentences also do different things. Short sentences make key points or recap them, and trade in relatively straightforward statements about the world. Long ones take readers on a mental tour, list a whole series of things or stretch out a thought. Short sentences give the reader’s brain a bit of a rest; long ones give it an aerobic workout. Short sentences imply that the world is cut and dried; long ones restore its ragged edges. Short sentences are declarative and sure; long ones are conditional and conjectural. Vary your sentence length and you mirror the way the mind works, veering between conviction and nuance.

Vary the length of your sentences!

Trust me.

It works.

Tip 7: Put the important stuff at the end of the sentence

A good English sentence, however long it is, moves smoothly and easily towards its full stop. The best way to ensure this happens is to put the important stuff at the end. A sentence ordered like this feels more deliberate and memorable – just as, when you stop speaking, what sticks in your listener’s mind is the last thing you said.

Typically, the word or words at or near the start of a sentence are the subject. The words at the end of a sentence are typically the predicate: the main verb and its complements. The predicate adds new information that the next sentence may then comment on as a given. So the predicate often turns into the subject of the next sentence. Weak sentences break this given-new pattern. The subject is stronger than the predicate and the sentence ends with an unresounding phhtt.

If you write that something is an interesting factor to consider or should be borne in mind or is very relevant in today’s society, then your predicate is not saying much, because those things could be said about lots of things. I call these sentences pretending-to-care sentences. They turn up a lot in student essays, particularly in introductions, because you’ve essentially been given an assigned task and told to come up with something to say about it. Here are a few examples:

  • Poems dealing with the theme of death include great works by many different authors.
  • The issue of gender equality appears in thousands of texts from different writers all around the world.
  • Each of these writers has something special and unique about them.
  • These stories, written in different time frames, touch on many different subjects.
  • Malcolm X produced potentially one of the most influential autobiographies to ever exist.
  • Throughout my essay, I will use a wide range of secondary sources, making my argument more objective.

There’s nothing drastically wrong with any of these sentences. But there are two problems with all of them: they don’t say very much, and they end flatly. Look at the second half of all these sentences: the predicate (touch on many different subjects, have something special and unique about them, include great works by many different authors etc.) could apply to lots of things.

Let’s have a go at fixing a couple of pretending-to-care sentences.

Childhood is a stage in life that everyone has experienced.

Better version: All of us were children once.

The theme of love is one which has reoccurred throughout various texts in the literary tradition since its very beginning.

Better: Love is a recurring literary theme.

The italicized versions are better not just because they use fewer unnecessary words, but because they end strongly, with the key bit of information at the end of the sentence. If you do this, the full stop will arrive with a satisfying click.

Tip 8: Your writing must speak all on its own

First, some words from the author Verlyn Klinkenborg:

‘When called to the stand in the court of meaning, your sentences will get no coaching from you. They’ll say exactly what their words say, and if that makes you look ridiculous or confused, guess what? Sentences are always literal, no matter how much some writers abhor the idea of being literal. In fact, nothing good can begin to happen in a writer’s education until that sinks in. Your opinion of what your sentence means is always overruled by what your sentence literally says.’

Klinkenborg captures here what makes writing so hard. You have to arrange the words in such a way that they can be deciphered in your absence. In writing, meaning derives from just four things: syntax (the grammatical order of the words), word choice, punctuation and typography (that’s things like capital letters and italics). Part of you thinks that you will be able to hover over the reader’s shoulder as they read what you’ve written, saying ‘That’s not what I meant. This is what I really meant!’. You won’t. The only thing the reader can use to access your wonderful ideas is your words. Writing is made of marks on the page and nothing else.

In their book The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White advise: ‘When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.’ When you write a first draft, it is very unlikely that you will have said exactly what you think you have said. That’s why you need to read your work over, read it aloud, redraft it, proofread it. Then you find out if you have said what you wanted to say.

Writing is a strange, cumbersome, artificial process. It takes a lot of work to make your words clear to the reader. The comic singer Neil Innes used to start his act with this line: ‘I’ve suffered for my art. Now it’s your turn.’ Don’t be like that. Don’t show the reader how tedious you found writing your essay by making them suffer as well. Writing should be an act of generosity, a gift from writer to reader. The gift is the work you’ve put in to make your meaning clear and your sentences a pleasure to read.

Tip 9: Avoid paragraphs of very different lengths

The paragraphs in your essay should not be of dramatically different lengths. That doesn’t mean they have to be exactly the same length. But if you have a two-page paragraph followed by one that is two sentences long, it’s a sign that you need to reshape your essay. There is no rule about how long a paragraph should be, although I don’t like to make mine longer than about 250 words.

A good, basic way of thinking about a paragraph is that it is a single idea, developed into an extended thought. You introduce your point at the start of the paragraph and spend the rest of it developing that point, using examples, supporting quotes, evidence, qualifications and counter-arguments. If your paragraph is only a sentence long, it either means that your idea needs to be developed further, or that it doesn’t merit a paragraph of its own. If your paragraph is two pages long, it means that it contains several ideas that each need their own smaller paragraph.

Paragraphs allow you to put similar material in your essay in the same place. A common phrase that occurs in student essays is ‘As previously mentioned’, or ‘As mentioned earlier’. In which case, why didn’t you also mention this point earlier, when you were talking about that subject? Put similar material in the same place in your essay.

The first and last sentences of each paragraph carry a lot of stress. They are a good way of nudging your argument along. Try making those sentences fairly short, so they can quickly introduce what’s to follow or wrap up a point.

Tip 10: Choose the right word

Be specific in your choice of words. It helps if you learn to be interested in word origins. Did you know that humility and humour are both linked etymologically to humus – the soil, the earth – and to a human, who is thus, linguistically, an earthling? Did you know capricious referred originally to the behaviour of a typical goat (Capricorn being the sign of the goat). Did you know that obscene originated in Greek drama as ob-skene, which means ‘offstage’? Did you know that immediately means ‘without any intervening medium’ – nothing comes between it?

If you know what a word’s origin is, you’re more likely to use that word appropriately. Try to avoid what I call ‘thesaurus words’, where you’re looking for an alternative to a word and find a synonym in the thesaurus facility on MS Word. No word means exactly the same as another one. The right word is rarely the longest, most complicated or most impressive-looking word. It’s just the word that perfectly fits what you want to say in that part of the sentence.

Be aware of what I call ‘crutch words’: the off-the-shelf words that you use a lot. For me, it is words like merely and simply. A common student crutch word is somewhat, often used wrongly. Another crutch word, to describe a book or fictional character, is relatable, an adjective that doesn’t mean much. Use the ‘find’ facility on MS Word to see if you use a particular word a lot. If you use lots of crutch words, your prose may sound muddy and dull.

Choosing the right words is hard, and our first efforts often sound slightly wrong or try-too-hard. The right word rarely comes to you immediately (‘without any intervening medium’). Go through your essay looking at every word, particularly the nouns and adjectives. Is that really the right word? Did I mean to say that? Can I come up with a more exact and informative way of describing this poem than emotional or poignant or relatable?

Good writers also tend to be interested in words themselves: their look, feel, shape and sound. ‘We must remember how wide the word “Iowa” is,’ the American writer William Gass once wrote. ‘We must bear in mind how some words are closed at both ends like “top” or are as open as “easy” or as huffed as “hush.” Some words click and others moan. Some grumble. Listen to the way the word “sister” is put together. Can you feel the blow which chops off the end of “clock”?’ Cultivate this kind of granular interest in words and they will – I promise – pay you back a hundredfold.