Are there times when you want to write something different; to create something special and lasting that readers will find important?
I was recently inspired by a book called A Grand Complication: The Race to Build the World’s Most Legendary Watch, by Stacy Perman, a fascinating book about watchmaking and collecting in the early 20th century.
After reading the book, I was struck by the many lessons fine watchmaking can teach about writing. Here are four of my favorites.
1. Use Layers to Enhance Your Writing
The great watchmakers understood that special watches need to do more than tell time. They added complications, the name given to elements like alarms, celestial charts, and calendars.
Watches with complications are made up of hundreds of pieces of metal and gemstones the size of a grain of rice or smaller. The limitless combinations of tiny elements are painstakingly built up in layers so they fit within a compact space and flawlessly perform the function they are designed for.
Likewise, writing is made up of an infinite number of elements that affect your plot, characters, narrative structure, and flow of argument. Sometimes the pieces are so small as to seem insignificant. Yet each is important and works with the others to contribute to the whole.
Like watchmaking, writers don’t toss all the elements in and hope for the best. You carefully add layers to your characters so they are multi-dimensional. You don’t give the plot away all at once, but at a measured pace. And when you write non-fiction, you lead your readers through the layers of your argument.
However, unlike watchmakers, you aren’t limited by physical space. You can rework or add new elements to change anything you like. The only constraint is your imagination and your technical prowess. As your skills increase, so do the permutations of your elements.
2. Don’t Hide Your Writing In a Drawer
Only a few of the most sought-after watches, called supercomplications have been built. The watch referred to in the title of Perman’s book is the Graves Supercomplication, named for the financier who commissioned it. The Graves watch has over 900 miniscule pieces, each specially handcrafted and polished to exact specifications.
Yet for all their technological and aesthetic superiority, this watch was meant to be handled and enjoyed, and your writing should be as tangible as a watch. If your words remain hidden in a desk drawer, nobody will appreciate their beauty. Put your writing out in the world for everybody to read and benefit from.
3. Write As Fluidly As a Fine Watch
Like watch movements, there needs to be a purpose to your work. If it cannot be used or understood, what impact will it have? You don’t need an existential treatise or an incomprehensible story based on metaphor to create something beautiful and special.
Have you ever watched clock movements? There is a remarkable fluidity to them. They are made up of solid gemstones and pieces of metal, yet the movement is graceful and mesmerizing.
Beautiful writing can be as spellbinding as clock movements. I’m sure you’ve read passages that draw you back because what you read has special meaning for you. Words and ideas may be ever-changing and ephemeral, but their impact doesn’t have to be.
4. Serve Your Apprenticeship
It takes years to become a fine watchmaker. Apprentices begin by sitting next to a master. Slowly their skills increase until they build a simple watch on their own. Eventually, the practice pays off and they use their knowledge to take over from their mentor or open their own shop.
As a writer, you can begin your training at any time and gain proficiency relatively quickly. Writers can choose any master as a mentor simply by visiting the local bookstore.
However, to go beyond proficient writing, you have have to be a prolific reader because reading teaches what works and what doesn’t. If you carefully study the phrases and passages that resonate within you, over time you will incorporate the best elements of beautiful writing into our own work. Now, I’m not claiming everybody can write like Faulkner or Yann Martel or Erica Jong. But that doesn’t mean you can’t write meaningful prose that your readers remember.
Could Your Writing Be Timeless?
This is where practice comes in. While timeless writing isn’t super complicated, it takes dedicated, mindful work. As you read and explore, your mind fills with ideas and phrases that you put onto paper. The more you do this, the easier it becomes to decide which elements work together to create a finished piece.
After you master the basics, keep pushing the boundaries of your creativity. There is no limit to what you can learn if you are dedicated and always strive to do a little bit better each time.
What makes writing timeless for you?
In order to write at a deeper level, learn to see everything around you. Go outside and study a tree in your yard or local park. Consider how each tiny element of that tree contributes to the whole.
Spend fifteen minutes painting a picture in words that conveys what you see. When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, be sure to leave feedback on a few practices by other writers.