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On writing: Does how matter as much as what?


Space for the Butterflies - Does how you write matter as much as what you say?

I have a weakness for Persephone books. It’s not that unusual to find a publisher whose style of stories you adore, I grant you, but in this case it’s not just that they publish forgotten gems (which they do, and it’s awesome), it’s the books themselves that I love, the soft grey covers, the beautifully patterned endpapers and matching bookmark, and lovely crisp smooth pages that are such a pleasure to hold and read. They are a tactile pleasure, as well as being great books.

The tactile pleasure of a good book or a beautiful magazine are to the content what our sense of smell is to taste; you can taste most things with a bunged up nose, but it’s never the same as when the aroma has built up all your expectations for the first bite.

It works both ways of course; how often have you rejected a pretty piece of paper for scrawling a random shopping list and gone for the back of the envelope instead? We choose the materials that we associate with the task.

I came across this very powerful case in point recently in an article from a Jewish parenting website; the story of a little girl coming home from school and asking what a swastika looks like. To me, and to the little girl perhaps, it’s a symbol of a very dark time in human history, but I don’t have any emotional connection to it, merely academic. To the mother though, daughter of two holocaust survivors it means so much more, and so she searches through the pencil box for the very nastiest pencil, digs in the bin for her daughter’s thrown away lunch bag, roughly sketches it out, and throws pencil and bag back into the bin. In answering her daughter’s question in that way she told so much more of the story of that symbol.

So what about when we write? I love beautiful stationery; lovely notebooks and colourful pens and I do make myself use the notebooks and not just save them.

Space for the Butterflies - Does how you write matter as much as what

(this one (from Esmie) is one of my favourite and prettiest that H bought for me on the way home from a business trip because he thought I’d like it better and it would last longer than flowers – he knows me well)
My pretty notebooks hold plans and ideas and random thoughts and sometimes even shopping lists and having a pretty planner definitely makes the world a happier place.

But for writing blog posts and anything else of a serious length, I’m bound to technology. I write on my iPad, in a cheery red case, balanced on my knee as the train whistles through the countryside on my way to work, tap tap tapping on a screen whose slight stickiness rather suggests that at some point in the last 24 hours, one of my children has tried to carry it off as treasure. It’s not exactly the romantic view of writing is it, all candlelight and flowing ink?


This blog is my children’s baby book, and it’s a truer statement than you might think. I own physical baby books for each of my three children but I have been astonishingly bad at filling them in. I think Kitty’s might still be waiting for her birth story, and Elma’s peters out after the first five weeks, although I did do those very diligently. The truth is that my stories of being their mother are here. All those little milestones from first smiles, first steps, first words, right up to first day of school are in this little corner of the internet. It has allowed me to pepper my words with more pictures and snippets of video than I could ever print, and to share them, and in sharing, make connections and find friends.

One day I will print out the blog for the children, and when I do, it will be with pretty paper and a lovely binding but, in the meantime, have I just stumbled upon the perfect justification for ever more beautiful Apple products?

What impact does how I write and how you read them have on what I’m actually saying? And is it less somehow because they’re just on a computer screen?

My answer is that I hope not. When it comes to what I’m writing I’ve written rough drafts of blog posts everywhere from pretty notebooks to the side of an envelope and an increasingly solid stack of post it notes, without it changing the nature of the content, or at least I don’t think so.  Perhaps because I know the words will always end up here.

The actual tactile pleasure of reading may depend on how you’re reading, but as bloggers we get to choose the font and the colour and the size and the banner, and do everything we can think of to make is pretty and readable. And if the real answer is that yes, of course it changes everything, perhaps being able to share in a way that just wouldn’t be possible if I was trying to post you all letters is compensation enough – what do you think?

This is the second of my posts sparked from a Writing Map that I picked up last summer – this week it asked about the tools of my trade and last week we were talking about when writing is easy and when the words dry up; that post, and the fascinating comments that followed it, is here.