Dorothy Parker once said “I hate writing, I love having written.” It wasn’t until I started writing semi-regularly that I knew what this actually meant. The process of writing can be difficult; you come up with a dozen ideas, select which one you want to extend, draft out the outline, go back and fill in the blanks, research some quotes to insert, tidy up all of the grammatical and spelling mistakes, find an appropriate image, upload it all to the internet, then realise it was a poor article with a weak argument to begin with so go back to square one.
Of course, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes the words just flow; I call these first-drafters. These are the times when the words form in front of your eyes, when the argument is so clear and well-reasoned that you don’t need to think it through, you just need to get it down in print as quickly as possible so it will work itself out.
Over the past year or so I’ve not found the time to open myself up enough to either approach. Actually that’s wrong: I’ve not made the time. I never had the time available in the past, when between us Gareth and I turned out a different and detailed piece every single day of the week. No, we simply dedicated ourselves to doing this and the words just came; we made the time to find them and they were there.
Sometimes it was easy. Sometimes events conspired to put a story in front of you which you had a strong opinion about and which you were happy to mentally spark about until you could make a few minutes to note them down and flesh it out. Sometimes this happened more than once a day, meaning that evening you could prepare half a dozen posts and schedule them for coming weeks, bumping some of them back as more time-bound or urgent pieces came to life.
Other times though, it was hard. Ideas were there, but never at a time when you could note them down. Sometimes they simply didn’t stand up to more scrutiny; what was a pithy and fun one liner or introductory paragraph could actually go no further, so was filed away in the folder marked “things to finish”. Sometimes there was simply little to talk about, meaning you plucked random things from the air and practiced creating an argument for its own sake.
And of course, increasingly you had lots to say about something but knew it was not appropriate to be writing about it in public. Moving slowly up the middle-management ladder exposed me to things which I knew I could talk about, but which wouldn’t necessarily endear me to my workplace. Be it comments on government policy, criticism or support for the work undertaken by particular political parties or simply a view which was a little controversial and which showed up deficiencies in thinking or action at places I had worked or knew well; some things just raised flags.
This puts a real clamp on things, and forces you to second-guess yourself constantly. I found myself writing things which, in the good old days of anonymity, read really well and were perfectly balanced, but in the new era of writing under my own name could have things read into it which could make life awkward (rightly or wrongly). I’ve had posts which were entirely innocent in intent pulled up by senior staff who thought I was talking about them, their work or something they had said to me, when in reality it was nothing of the sort. It was a strange sort of paranoia, played out on both sides.
This knocked me out of the habit of writing, and that’s a hard habit to pick up again. The act of sitting down at a computer and typing thoughts, forming them into an argument and then putting it out into the wild is fantastic, but requires a degree of confidence and ego in combination with time and motivation if it is to be done well.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I also discovered a strange split in terms of content. I wanted to write about the sector in general, as well as about things I was learning in particular. I wanted to discuss things close to my work and areas of interest without necessarily relating them to work programmes I was delivering, though I was also keen to use writing as a method of driving thought processes forward internally as well as externally. This is a hard circle to square, as these each require subtly different approaches if they are to be both allowed to happen, as well as if they are to actually achieve anything.
I’ll be honest; when I began writing post this I didn’t actually have an end point in mind. Part of me hoped that it would turn into a first-drafter, that the argument would lead me, logically or not, to a pithy end point and conclusion, but I’m not sure it has. I suspect this is in no small part down to a lack of practice, that my writing-mind has atrophied somewhat through a lack of use resulting in this becoming something of a ramble, but I also felt that it was important to get even that down in words. It’s only by writing, and writing more, that I will bring it back up to speed and to a level where I am comfortable with doing it more.
I can’t say that I’ll commit to daily blogging ever again, certainly not in the immediate future. I can’t even commit to regular blogging at all; but I can commit to trying. I will be looking to write more regularly, both here and also through my new day job. Yes, in an effort to force me to keep fingers to keyboard I plan to write for my work a bit more. Some posts may end up being reblogged here if they are interesting, relevant and appropriate, but some may stay on our work blog. Who knows?
One thing I do know is that 2015 will see a lot more public writing from me, one way or another.
I apologise in advance.
The hurried well done is replaced with a request to help with firefighting and there's an elephant in the room too. This elephant is that your boss would love to put you in for an award, the posh London hotel, the train travel and the overnight London hotel. But your boss doesn't have a spare £600 anymore.
1. Best communications team - chosen by the overall event sponsor
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I had a novel experience a couple of weeks ago. For the first time in my life I put in an FOI request. It was sent to six local authorities, and asked them three or four questions about a topic which wasn’t available in the public domain already. I’d looked through committee papers and spoken with a few people I knew, but FOI was the quickest, most reliable way left to me so I took it.
I took my time crafting the request, remembering the countless frivolous, vague or overly complicated ones I received over the years and made it as succinct and easy to understand as possible. I chose six local authorities who I believed would be able to answer my query and hit the send button, waiting excitedly for first the acknowledgement replies to come in before the information itself.
It’s amazing what it feels like to go through such a process from the other side of the fence, and I've a new found understanding of just why so many people get so frustrated with some local councils.
I’ll break my request down in general terms in order to demonstrate my point. I asked whether they had done something in particular; if so, what were their reasons for, and if not what were their reasons against. I then asked if they were planning on doing it in the future; again, following up with reasons for or against. I also asked whether they expected it to result in any savings, and if so how much.
The acknowledgements trickled in over the next day or two, telling me that it would be dealt with within 20 days which was all as expected. When I in fact got in after the weekend and found not only an acknowledgement from Wigan Council but a response as well I was on a high! “Wow!” I thought, “these guys are really on the ball! I know it wasn’t a complicated request but I didn’t expect them to respond quite so quickly!”
Imagine my disappointment when the respons totalled up to five words and an acronym. Five words: “no”, “n/a” and “not at this time”. Were these responses factually correct? Yes, I suppose so, but the tone of them and the lack of any form of personalised response was very far from what I expected. It takes all of two minutes to type out a sentence to soften those edges, and has not left me with anything like a warm, positive feeling and an appreciation for them taking the time to share some information with me.
This was the first and to date only direct engagement I've had with Wigan Council, and it’s not given me a very positive impression of them. I know they must do some great work, and their website is referred to as an example of good practice, but they let themselves down with such a curt response to a request which should have been right up their alley.
Thankfully though, not everyone is like that. The very next day I received an email from Monmouthshire County Council. I’d not received an acknowledgement from them yet so I nearly dismissed it, before noticing that instead of putting me in the standard 20 day holding pattern they had in fact responded in full. They told me that they hadn’t done the thing I was asking about, and then gave me a few reasons why they might be looking at doing it in the future.
It wasn’t rambling, it didn't go around the houses and bamboozle me, it didn’t refer off to random committee reports which half answer a related topic: it clearly and succinctly answered my question and made me feel like they had appreciated what I wanted rather than simply working out the fewest number of words to respond in.
In short, I was happy to have received it.
FOIs can be a funny thing; advice to officers is usually to provide answers only to what is requested rather than to try to figure out what was intended. This means officers don’t get accused of misleading through their responses, but can also mean plenty of follow-up enquiries as the requestor refines their question and narrows down the scope of investigation. Each of these gets the mandatory 20 days, so it can be months before a simple answer is given. It also is misinterpreted by some to mean keep the information to a minimum, and style to zero. I can handle no style, but would prefer not to handle no courtesy.
Yes, technically officers can (and should) get in touch with the enquirer if they aren’t clear about things, but I rarely hear of this happening. If all of the answers I'd received had been like Wigan's then this post would have been a lot more ranty.
Thankfully Monmouthshire provided the ying to Wigan’s yang and came across as a help rather than a hindrance. Fingers crossed that the remaining responses are on the helpful end of the great FOI spectrum.