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2017: the year of the squirrel

Andrew Steeds

I often wonder whether any writing would not be improved if people spent more time planning it and reading through it once they’d completed it.

What’s clear is that I’d lose a huge chunk of my consultancy and training work. So much of that part of what I do, I’m ashamed to admit, comes down to showing people the effect of considered reflection before and after writing that I’d be out of pocket if more people got wise to it. Luckily, people show no sign of doing so. Why?

The standard answer is that there is no time these days for planning and reviewing. I’m sceptical about this. For one thing, if everyone has no time, then the lack of time is no longer a disadvantage – it’s endemic to the human condition. For another, it’s always struck me as a lazy answer, couched in a slightly self-glorying form: ‘What I do is just so-o-o important I’ve not got time for luxuries like that.’

But I do think that there is something about e-mail and texting – and, by extension, all communication generated electronically – that militates against reflection, that is deeply inimical to it. It’s partly that it’s so easy to reply immediately, but partly also that the medium, its conventions and characteristics (text language, for example), seem to be predicated on instantaneous communication. Whatever the advantages of this may be, there are not a few disadvantages, too, not the least of which are the many e-mails and text messages that get a completely different response from the one intended.

It was my son, squirrels, and a trip to the gym that set me off thinking about this.

On the last day of the holidays my son (whose name isn’t squirrels, by the way) remembered some homework that he had to do on Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. He spent well over six hours producing a scant page and a half on the first chapter of the book. I’d suggested that he might find it easier if he’d produced some kind of plan, insisted that he’d be better off preparing it – he was equally adamant that he wanted to get straight into it. I think I scored a victory here, but it was pretty much a pyrrhic victory.

And then, the next day, after a late night working session, I decided that a trip to the gym would be the spark needed to get my brain working again. Leaving the house took me the best part of 20 minutes by the time I’d remembered three vital pieces of kit I’d forgotten to pack in my bag, come out with the wrong keys, gone back in to send the document I’d saved as a draft. And, when I arrived at the gym, I realised that I’d not brought a lock for my bike. A bit of preparation would have helped, I observed to myself ruefully.

It’s what the squirrels do so well, after all. I’m obviously some kind of electronic game to them. With every new contraption I buy or develop to stop them getting at the food I leave out for the birds, they take stock, adjust and come up with a new strategy. They hang on the tree trunk, tail twitching, coiled concentration, trying to work out exactly what trajectory would land them on the place of maximum benefit. I thought I’d beaten them when I replaced the wire with string to connect the base of the feeder to the fat-ball container. With delight I watched them trying to climb down the string as they had climbed down the firmer wire, only to lose their balance and crash to the ground. But they regrouped, considered, planned – and decided instead to use the string as a plumb-line to guide their fall from the feeder to the fat balls, which they then launched themselves onto and started eating.

This year I am going to be more like a squirrel, and my writing will improve as a result. I encourage you all – my son included – to follow my lead.