There is only one thing that I wished I had known when I started out writing for other people. That is, there is no one right way of doing it, and you have to discover what works for you. There’s a bit of trial and error involved; you’re not likely to hit your own formula instantly.
For years I thought that academics like me were supposed to write their books sitting at a desk, with their reference books around them, converting their neat notes into finished copy on their computers (this was before laptops). I also thought that there was a seriousness to academic prose — a kind of male seriousness, I confess – that I should imitate.
I spent years occasionally managing to complete a short scholarly article, but for most of the time, my finger was on the delete button. I once had a year’s paid leave to write a book and, to immense shame, I ended the year hardly any further on than I had started.
Eventually I decided that I had to give up pretending to be the kind of writer that I wasn’t. I stopped trying to write in the lovely Victorian office in my college, complete with chaise longue, that I felt so lucky to have and seemed to be the perfect setting for the lady writer. I moved back to the mess of home and took up residence in a comfy chair and sat back with laptop on my knee (they’d been invented by now) and tapped away.
But more important I thought differently about what I actually wanted to say. I have now come to grasp one of the most important principles of writing: if you find yourself deleting version after version, the chances are you’re trying to write the wrong thing. And I have seen that it is possible to write academic stuff without the formality that I had believed was the stamp of authority. The best wake-up call I had was when a friend read something I had written and was brave enough to say, “this is probably right, but it’s boring’ – it wasn’t nice to hear, but it was true and you sure need friends like that.
So I started allowing myself to write in my own voice (not in what I came to call ‘big books by blokes about battles’ style). And, as I look back, I realise that I wrote all 600 pages of my history of Rome, SPQR, in the same chair, surrounded by the remnants of endless plates of toast and marmite, trying to interest the imaginary audience in from of me in what I wanted to say. It was messy but it worked.
Not that it always goes swimmingly of course. And when I struggle I get extremely bad tempered; I rant and storm and occasionally throw things and must be dreadful to live with. For me, writing does strain domestic harmony. A tolerant partner is another essential.
Mary Beard is one of Britain’s best-known Classicists – Professor at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Newnham College. She has written numerous books on the Ancient World including the Wolfson Prize-winning Pompei: The Life of a Roman Town, has presented highly-acclaimed TV series, Meet the Romans and Rome – Empire without Limit, and is a regular broadcaster and media commentator. Mary is also Classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement and writes a thought-provoking blog, A Don’s Life. Made an OBE in 2013 for services to Classical scholarship, her recent books include the critically-acclaimed SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome and thought-provoking Women & Power. Mary is one of the presenters for the BBC’s recent landmark Civilisations series.
This article is part of a series of experienced writers and authors sharing what they wish they had known when they first started writing.