Sitting in Hyde Park on an unseasonably sunny day, I read an article called ‘How friendships change as we age (we need to catch up)’ by Julie Beck for the Atlantic. In it, she argued that as we become proper adults we lose our friends because, unlike our family and partners, we are neither biologically nor legally bound to them. Ordinarily, I might have written a feature article in rebuttal – maybe 1,000 words for The Guardian or The Pool. But, for the first time, I noticed that I wanted to delve further into the subject of friendship. I started reading as many studies as I could, looking into the science, evolutionary psychology and art of friendship as well as personal essays on break-ups, solidarity and best mates.
Essentially, I would spend the next year researching and then writing an 83,339-word reply to Julie Beck’s article on friendship. Now that I think of it, I should really tell her.
For someone used to writing 500-1,000 words at a time, often at speed, the idea of tapping 80,000 words into my trusty laptop was overwhelming at first, and continued to be daunting even as each thousand appeared.
Writing long form for the first time in my life was a challenge; it uses an entirely different writing muscle.
There is great skill in being efficient with language and when you write features as I do, especially for an online audience, you’re often required to ditch certain ideas, cut short various trains of thought and really economise on words. So I was used to editing even as I typed, rigorously selecting which sentences truly belong in a piece even as they’re turning up on the page, constantly assessing which words deserve to stay.
It took me a little while to realise, writing a book, that I could relax a little, indulge my digressions and stop looking for the most efficient way of saying something. A friend of mine said to me, when she’d just finished her book and I was still going, ‘If you have a tangent in mind, go with it. You’ll be so grateful later when you’re trying to make the word count’. And so I did. I started giving myself permission to fully explore an idea, to sit with an argument for longer than I usually would and to follow tangential thinking wherever it took me. It was, to be honest, delightful. It felt liberating and fascinating, suddenly having the space and the word count to fully embellish stories, share more wisdom from my interview subjects and plump up my chapters with case studies, colour and detail. Where usually I would self-censor for the sake of brevity, I began wandering through my research at a more leisurely pace, spending proper time with stats and concepts, listening to what people had to say and building my arguments with heftier detail. It was a real luxury, too, to have eight months to write it, rather than my usual, which is anything between an hour and a week.
It was a pleasure to work like this, a lot of the time. Sometimes the task of writing so many words was paralysing. I craved my usual efficacy, my regular deadlines, my tight word counts. I missed the feeling you get when you save a word document, attach it to an email and click ‘send’ with a little shot of dopamine to the brain to mark a job completed. Of course sometimes it was difficult – writing a book can be gruelling – but overall I revelled in the chance to write so many words and to so thoroughly explore a single topic. And saving that 83,339-strong Word document, attaching it to an email for my publisher and clicking ‘send’ was a surge of well-earned dopamine I’ll never forget. One I suspect I’ll try to get again and again.
By Kate Leaver