Things we know but don’t know we know

I came across this ages ago and it’s stuck with me ever since. Apart from the actually remembering the order of the words bit.

Which is kind of important. But I guess I could work it out because, after all, it’s something we know but don’t know we know until we do it.

It’s from this passage from The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth about how to order adjectives:

Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.

Look! I’ve written it out.

Oh, alright, I’ve copied and pasted it. I’m going to write it out now:

  1. Opinion
  2. Size
  3. Age
  4. Shape
  5. Colour
  6. Origin
  7. Material
  8. Purpose
  9. Noun

Or OSASCOMPN for short.


An engineer who writes code should also write essays

A hipster PC (Image by Erik Dungan)

A couple of years ago, I came across an essay by Shubhro Saha, a software engineer at Facebook in California, entitled “Software engineers should write“.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently.

He writes,

“An engineer who writes code should also write essays.

“Software engineers should write because it promotes many of the same skills required in programming. A core skill in both disciplines is an ability to think clearly. The best software engineers are great writers because their prose is as logical and elegant as their code.

“[…] Even if nobody reads your essay, writing it will make an impact on you. It will clarify your opinion on a topic and strengthen– or even weaken– your beliefs. The process alone of putting jumbled thoughts into concrete words is valuable.”

It’s a very good essay with a very compelling argument.

At high school I ‘failed’ my English higher the first time round; I actually got a D pass but the school felt that I could do better. They were right: I sat it again in sixth year and got a C.

It wasn’t until I went to university and studied Hebrew that I really began to understand language better. After that I went back to English and read numerous books about syntax, and grammar and punctuation. And I read widely.

I read well-written books and articles and journals. As I read them I stopped to consider why they had been written that way. I questioned why certain words has been used: what effect did they have. I analysed sentence structure. And I observed how simple the best writing was.

And I wrote. I wrote a journal—I still do. And a blog (this one). And a book, which was published in 2007. I’m currently, and slowly, writing another.

Writing helps me to clarify my thoughts. It helps me to express myself better. And if any of it helps someone else, or makes them laugh, or look at something from a different perspective then that’s a bonus.

I suspect that it does also help me write better code. And at the very least: better comments.

If you are a coder then I encourage you to read the article. If you are a writer and are wondering whether you ought to learn to code then perhaps start here: please don’t learn to code by Jeff Atwood.

First drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish

A book with blank pages lying open on a white background

A few months ago I read this blog post by Marc Laidlaw: “Writing for Half-Life“, in which he talks about working at Valve on the story for the computer game Half-Life (1998).

This paragraph in particular spoke to me:

“The crucial milestone for me was the completion of our first rough mock-up of the entire game—in essence our first rough draft. I knew that once we could move through the maps from beginning to end, without cheating, we would all discover a new vision of the game. Something closer to the final vision. This was something I believed very strongly, based on my experience as a writer. First drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish.”

That final sentence “first drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish” is what really stood out. I wrote it down in my to-do app and have referred to it on more than one occasion since then.

It reminds me of a passage from Tom Shippey’s book J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century who reveals that this was also Tolkien’s experience while writing The Lord of the Rings:

“Tolkien had no clear plan at all […] It is is an interesting, and for any intending writer of fiction rather an encouraging experience, to read through the selections from Tolkien’s many drafts now published […] and note how long it was before the most obvious and seemingly inevitable decisions were made at all. Tolkien knew, for instance, that Bilbo’s ring now had to be explained and would become important in the story, but he still had no idea of it as the Ring, the Ruling Ring, the Ring-with-a-capital-letter, so to speak: indeed he remarked at an early stage that it was ‘Not very dangerous’.”

(pp. 52–54)

Tolkien, in many ways, wrote himself into the story and, like the rolling countryside of the Shire around him, the plot began to develop and evolve. It was a gradual revelation to him: some aspects were obvious, others had to be teased out, and there was much revision.

I have found that a very useful thought to hold onto this year, not only while working on writing projects but in life in general. I don’t need to get things right first time. I don’t need to know how it ends, I just have to make a start.

This quotation from Ernest Hemmingway in A Moveable Feast (1964) has also been close to my heart:

“Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”

All you have to do is write one true sentence… First drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish… Now there is a plan for going forward into 2017: step by step, living forwards, living without fear, open to failure, open to living in the moment.

Who knows where 2017 will take us but I pray that we do it with integrity, with grace, and with compassion.

Writing and transformation


Tomorrow, I’m preaching once again at St Mary’s, Newport-on-Tay so having had a full and busy week I’m sitting at my PC on Saturday morning/afternoon pouring over the gospel reading (John 4: 5-42) searching for inspiration.

I already have a sermon that I’ve preached on this Sunday in the lectionary (Year A, Lent 3) but I’m keen to write something else, something new. Despite feeling quite exhausted, dizzy and in need of a long and welcome sleep.

One of the threads that is woven throughout the opening chapters of the Gospel according to St John is that of transformation, starting with Jesus’s changing of water into wine. I could do with some transformation this afternoon, starting with the changing of my blank word processor document into a sermon!

Come to the Land of Skull Bay

Come to the land of Skull Bay.

Clearing out stuff at Mum’s the other week I came across this story of mine that I’d written at primary school. I thought I’d share it with you. It’s called “Come to the Land of Skull Bay”.


Before I share the story, I thought I’d make mention of the format that I found this story in. The story was written on the middle pages of a small, four-page booklet with a full-colour, hand-illustrated cover. As you’ll see from the tale, I obviously spent more time on illustrating the front than on developing the plot and storyline, but I think you can see that it was worth it.

I’m reassured that at such an early age I obviously took JRR Tolkien’s advice to heart, that if you want to write a convincing fantasy piece you must start with a map. And what a fine map I produced. From top left, working around clockwise, the locations in the vicinity of “The Land of Skull Bay” are:

  • Scale Creature Bay
  • Plain of Mysterious Mist
  • Gloom Vocano
  • The Howling Rocks
  • Dark Wood Forest Nightmare Bend
  • Broken Claw Hill
  • The Floating Island
  • Cave Point
  • and of course, in the middle, the dubiously phallic Skull Tower Island

I’ve not corrected any of the spelling in retyping this. I think that it gives it an extra layer of authenticity.

Skull Tower Adventure

I came to Skull Bay because I was touring the mysterys of the world. This was the second one I am at. The first was the Burmuda Triangle. The part I am going to is Skull Tower Island.

When I arrived on the island I felt as if someone was watching me. I put up my tent and layed my things inside. I took a slow wander round the island and went back to the tent and fell asleep.

The next two days I did experaments on the soil and rocks. On the third day I saw a black ship coming towards the island. I took down my tent and hid in a hole in the ground.

When the ship came to the shore two men jumped out and went towards the tower and opened a sort of door with a bone. I slipped out of the hole and followed them up a ladder to the top then I hid behind some crates, and they pushed a button and the mist disappeared from the plain and other things disappeared.

I watched them go down the ladder and go to the ship. They sailed towards the plain but they smashed into the howling rocks. They dived out and swam to the shore, with black robes on.

I pressed a button and the mist appeared.

I ran down the ladder and across to my boat and went to the plain. I soon found the two men on the ground. I pulled back the robe and the man was a skelaton.

The next day I buried the man and went on the third place which was Stonehenge.

I got a “V.G.” for that from my teacher.

I love the ending. You can almost hear the teacher saying, “Right, class! You’ve got five more minutes on your stories, if you could bring them to a close now.”

“Arrgghhh! Panic!” my poor eleven year old brain must have thought. “But we can’t be finished. I’m still only in Act 1, we’ve only just met the protagonist and I’m only now realising the imbalance! What must I do?! … Sod it! I’ll just have to bury him and move on to Stonehenge, … where the demons dwell; where the banshees live and they do live well.

I bet Stephen King never wrote anything is spine-tinglingly harrowing and blood-curdling when he was at primary school! I wouldn’t be surprised if someone from the BBC Drama department writes to me and asks to buy the rights for that story, which I think you’ll find is still copyright me! … or the writers of every Scooby Doo story that has ever been.

In the words of Nick Ross from Crimewatch UK: “Don’t have nightmares!”