fetish literature

A writer’s consciousness of craft by Matt Kendrick

In this special guest article, the writer, editor, teacher, and mentor Matt Kendrick explores the role of literary craft and how it pertains to the actual activity of writing. 


To learn more about Matt, website, you can go to his website, where you’ll find information about his ‘Write Beyond The Lightbulb’ courses and much more!

On a recent re-read of White Teeth by Zadie Smith, I was struck by the level of writing technique on every page. I should have expected this. Zadie Smith is a brilliant writer. White Teeth is critically acclaimed. But the last time I read it was before I had much knowledge of things like anadiplosis and transferred epithets, whereas this time around, I read with very different eyes. I enjoyed the story. But I was also aware of how Smith was weaving that story onto the page.


These are the first three sentences:

Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 06.27 hours on 1 January 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate face down on the steering wheel, hoping the judgement would not be too heavy upon him. He lay forwards in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed either side like some fallen angel; scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage licence (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him.

Note how Smith roots her reader in time and place. We know when we are. We know where we are. Both elements (time and place) are given twice. We have a more general description (‘early in the morning’ / ‘late in the century’ / ‘Cricklewood Broadway’) and this is followed by a much more specific description (‘At 06.27 hours’ / ‘1 January 1975’ / ‘fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate’) which creates the effect of a camera zooming in from wide shot to fine detail. The phrasing of the time (‘06.27 hours’ rather than simply ‘half past six’) tells us something about character and voice—there is a militaristic angle here which is confirmed by the later reference to ‘army service medals.’ If we look at the rhythm of the writing, we start with a sentence fragment (a sentence lacking a verb). We then have a complex sentence which is both left-branching (a dependent clause at the beginning) and right-branching (a gerund clause at the end). The third sentence is right-branching (it starts with a basic subject-verb). This variation of phrasing creates a pleasing rhythm in a reader’s mind. And paired with that rhythm, we have a subtle sound-palette of sibilant Ss, especially in the verbs ‘slack’, ‘splayed’, and ‘scrunched’.


But wait a second. Sibilant? Gerund clause? Left-branching? Some (or all) of these terms might be unfamiliar to you. The aforementioned ‘anadiplosis’ and ‘transferred epithets’ are even more obscure. And the thing is, we don’t need to know anything about any of them to enjoy the writing. We don’t need any knowledge of what Smith is doing at the level of technique in order to be immersed in the atmosphere she creates. I would even go further to suggest that we don’t WANT to see that technique, because seeing it would risk pulling us out of the story.


I often compare a story to a hot air balloon. The story is the ‘envelope’ (the material that creates the balloon). The emotions are the heat that makes the balloon soar high into the sky. And the words (the writing technique) are the envelope’s stitches as well as the ropes and pullies hidden inside. ‘Hidden’ is the key word here. The technique is there. It is doing amazing things. But in most good writing, it is hidden from sight, in service to narrative, characterisation, and emotional resonance rather than needing to shine of its own right.


That is a long-winded way of saying that writing technique is important but it is also generally important that a reader isn’t overly distracted by what is happening at the level of sentences and words. This, of course, creates a dilemma from a writing point of view. A writer needs technique, but they also don’t want that technique to be visible. So (I am finally getting to the point of this article!), how does a writer approach this? How much would (or should) they be aware of technique as they weave their stories onto the page?


That is a big question and I’d suggest (as with anything in the writing world), it is dependent on multiple moving parts. The first thing to note is that all writers approach their art in very different ways. You might have heard the terms ‘plotter’ and ‘pantser’ which are general labels for (a) someone who meticulously works out every little detail in advance, and (b) someone who has a vague idea of their story and discovers that story through the process of writing. In reality, of course, it is more of a scale than a binary, and any given writer might approach each new story slightly differently. The amount of character development they do in advance might vary. Similarly, the amount of world-building or the amount of thought that goes into structure, theme, or voice. And all of this is going to have a big say in how aware of writing technique a writer can AFFORD to be on their initial draft. There will be a big difference in whether a complete pantser has space in their brain to contemplate writing technique compared to a complete plotter who is perhaps more focused on the ‘how’ of putting their story onto the page rather than the ‘what.’


Another thing to note is that writing is not a single skill but a combination of different skills. I always compare it to spinning plates. There are the three big elements I referenced above—story, emotional resonance, and technique—but each of those elements contains various sub-categories like ‘tension’, ‘sub-plots’, ‘physical description’, ‘relationships’, ‘character motivations’, ‘imagery’, ‘voice’, and ‘flow’—and these sub-categories might be thought of as a plate that a writer is trying to keep spinning. If you watch a plate-spinner at work, they don’t tend to get all twenty-nine of their plates spinning in one go. Instead, they start with a couple of plates, get those plates into a nice rhythm, then add each further plate one plate at a time.


A plate-spinner can presumably start with any plate, but for a writer, the order in which they start spinning their plates is important. I generally think that a story should start either with a plot or with a character and that everything else follows on. But after that, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Once they have a good sense of story and / or character, perhaps it works well for a particular writer to also bear in mind the techniques they are bringing to the page. Or perhaps a writer prefers a more layered approach of getting the story down, fleshing out the characters, building emotional resonance, one plate at a time, only setting that final plate of writing technique into motion once everything else is already on the go.


Thinking about it in this fashion, perhaps my question about how much a writer might be aware of writing technique should be more about ‘when’ rather than ‘how much.’ For me, it comes down to timing and where on the journey of writing a story (idea stage, drafting stage, structural editing, line editing, polishing stage) a writer has reached. This analysis, though, only digs so far into the question. It deals with the issue at the level of conscious thought. But there is also the subconscious to consider. Our brains are capable of achieving amazing things without us being fully aware of what our brains are doing.


I’m not an expert, but my understanding is that we have two levels of thought—conscious and subconscious. At the conscious level, we have our thoughts and feelings, and at the subconscious level, we have everything else our brain is achieving like reminding us to breathe, instructing us to blink, and making snap decisions on potential threats. This is no different when it comes to the act of writing. A writer might be focused purely on hammering out their plot, but their subconscious mind might be racing ahead, adding in elements of foreshadowing (see how in White Teeth, Smith has referenced religion, military, and marriage in her opening three sentences; three elements essential to her overarching plot—I wonder whether that was her conscious mind or subconscious mind at work?) or threading a section of writing with cohesive imagery. I am often amazed when I look at my own writing to discover that I’ve done something clever without actually intending to do it. And I am sure that much greater writers than myself have a lot more going on in their subconscious minds than I do.


The reason for their more adept subconscious minds will almost certainly be to do with practice. Yes, some of it will be natural talent. But writing is a skill that can be practised like anything else. Stepping into yet another analogy, let us consider a tennis player for a second. They are serving for the match on Centre Court at Wimbledon. They are bouncing the ball. They are throwing it up. Their racket is connecting with the ball. Now they are hitting a backhand slice. Now they are hitting a topspin lob. Tennis is a game of technique, but most of that technique is happening at a subconscious level. I am sure it can’t be helpful for a tennis player to be thinking ‘now, I must bend my elbow just so’ or ‘now, I must tilt my racket to an angle of forty-five degrees.’ But in order to get to that point of the shots feeling as natural and easy as standing or nodding, the players have spent hours upon hours practising each individual shot. They don’t do this by simply turning up at their local park and playing a game. Instead, they do it through drills that focus on repetition of drive volleys or smashes until they can play them with their eyes closed.


This is the same for writers. Writing technique can only be applied by the subconscious mind if it has been pre-learnt, if a writer has put in the time to practise that technique. We do a lot of this on my writing courses where I encourage course participants to consciously focus on one technique at a time. The exercises that I get them to do are not about creating perfect stories. Instead, they are about honing those writerly muscles for a future date. Looping back to Zadie Smith, I am sure she does similar, that she is only able to use the techniques that she does because she has spent time on the practice court. She has actively read and analysed her favourite authors. She has played about with different sentence constructions. She has read craft books. She has learnt about rooting, foreshadowing, and imagery. And in this way, she has given her subconscious mind the tools it needs to do a lot of technical wizardry without her conscious mind being fully aware. But she has also given her conscious mind the best chance of holding a magnifying glass to the page and asking it the question, ‘What technique might I apply here to make this even better?’

Try it at home

For readers: pick a book that you consider to be well written and open it to the first page. As you read through the first few paragraphs, focus on what the writer is doing at the level of words. Listen to the rhythms and sounds of the writing. Consider how the writer brings the scene to life. Think about how the writer conjures tone of voice. Are there things you notice that you wouldn’t normally see?


For writers: think about your list of writing skills (see the sub-categories I referenced above) and pick one where you want to improve. It might be dialogue. It might be imagery. It might be varying your sentence constructions. One good way you practise any skill is to find a passage of published writing which demonstrates that skill at a high level and simply copy it out by hand—your subconscious mind will learn a lot even from this simple act. To take things further, use that framework and start changing one word at a time for another word in the same grammatical category (so only change two-syllable adjectives for another two-syllable adjective, change verbs for another verb etc.)—again, your subconscious mind can learn so much from this.

Go a step further

There is so much we can learn, both as readers and writers, from pondering a great writer’s writing with more of a magnifying glass than we usually would. And if you’d like a little further reading on the subject of reading, here’s something I wrote a while back.



Matt Kendrick is a writer, editor, and teacher based in the East Midlands, UK. His work has been featured in various journals and anthologies including Best Microfiction, The Best Small Fictions, Craft Literary, and SmokeLong Quarterly. He publishes a monthly newsletter on writing craft called ‘Prattlefog & Gravelrap’, and teaches craft-focused writing courses under the umbrella ‘Write Beyond the Lightbulb.’


Website: www.mattkendrick.co.uk | X / Twitter: @MkenWrites | Bluesky: @mattkendrick.bsky.social

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