How restrictions can actually boost your writing - Ian McMillan

One of the things I love about writing this column is the restrictions it imposes on me; that might seem counter-intuitive but I like the fact that it has to be 550 words long.

That’s good discipline for my undisciplined mind. If somebody says to me ‘Write whatever you like and take as long as you want’ then I’m stumped but if somebody says ‘Can you write me something that will fit into the space and have this many words?’ then I’m a happy author. These restrictions help me to think; they stop me getting lazy.

I remember years ago, as a self-imposed restriction, trying to write a column for this paper without the letter ‘e’ in it, in the manner of the great French writer Georges Perec who once wrote an entire novel without the letter ‘e’ in it (Apart from the first page, presumably, with his name on it.) I thought I’d done really well until one reader, then another, pointed out where I’d actually deposited a number of ‘e’s. Was my face red! I mean rd.

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I was thinking about this the other week when I was doing some writing for a new project in Rotherham; the town has enterprisingly declared that it’s going to be Children’s Capital of Culture in 2025 and they’ve recruited a team of people as Young Producers to help make it happen.

Ian McMillan believes writing is boosted by word count limits.

Me and the brilliant artist Patrick Murphy have been commissioned to create help the Young Producers to generate a couple of lines of charged language that can be part of a neon installation for the town. The thing about writing for neon is that you can’t have too many words.

Patrick and I have created a piece for the new town square in Barnsley; it’s situated in the new library and it’s just one single line that says ‘Barnsley’s fierce love holds you forever in its heart.’ I can’t tell you how many redrafts it took us to get there!

So to start us off in Rotherham I wrote some haiku to get us thinking. A haiku, as you may know, is an old Japanese poetic form that, in English, has three lines that add up to 14 syllables.

The first line has five syllables, the second line has seven syllables and the third line has five syllables. One went ‘Rotherham sunrise/glowing like transcendent steel/made for all of us’.

Another was ‘Rotherham stories/built from this town’s beginnings/illuminations.’

We all sat and made new haiku, which involved a lot of counting on fingers, punctuated by gasps of delight when someone realised that a word had just enough syllables and surprise when it was revealed that a word had more syllables than you thought, like ‘illuminations’ does in the haiku above.

So have a go at some restricted writing; 550 words and not one more, or a single line that will be seen in public for ever, or 17 syllables to conjure up an image or a mood.

Even if these pieces of writing only end up in your notebook, it’s well worth doing!

Or, in a haiku: ‘Take just a few words/make sure they speak so clearly/they can’t be unheard’.