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Cutting up words

Be more Bowie. How sharpening your scissors can help carve out great ideas.

Photo by mana5280 on Unsplash

David Bowie did it to write lyrics.

Radiohead's Thom Yorke too, apparently. Before Bowie, it was popularised by writer William Burroughs. And he learned it from artist and poet Brion Gysin at the Beat Hotel in Paris.


What am I talking about?

Cut-up technique.

Or découpé if you want to sound French and sophisticated.

Better known as cutting up written text, then rearranging the words to create a new text.


One day back in the 1920s, our man Brion Gysin was cutting a picture mount to go in one of his frames. He was using newspapers to protect his table from his cutting knife, and inevitably he cut into the papers. At some point in this process, he noticed that the cut-out sections began to reveal text and words in a brand new (if mashed up) context.


The outcome appealed to him so much that he started doing it deliberately. He later showed his friend William Burroughs what he'd done and the pair started cutting up pages of all sorts of existing text, rearranging the words as a way to find new meaning with the sentences they created.


Flash forward several decades and David Bowie did something similar to create new lyrics and song ideas. Bowie would say that by cutting up his diaries, or things he'd written, he'd discover new and interesting things about himself or how he thought.


Cut-up technique is an amazing tool for creative thinking. For writing, it's particularly useful - and fun - when you need to come up with a new phrase, concept or sentence structure. But rearranging cut up words can also paint a picture in the mind when you need a visual idea too.


The process gives your brain a freedom it might not immediately allow itself, to try out new patterns and shapes - be they phrases, or visual descriptions - until something clicks and feels right.


Try it with a random piece of text you've previously written. Go all Gysin and use newspapers or magazines if you like. Why not print off this blog and do the same (it'll no doubt make it better).

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If you don't have any material to hand, start freestyling and write (or type) and keep on writing until you've filled a page. Don't self-edit. And don't just write 'all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy' over and over - that way lies trouble my friend.


There's no pressure to write anything that makes sense or even correct English. Let's face it, you're going to chop it up anyway. Just blast down phrases, words, things you've heard on the TV, memories of childhood, stuff you need from the supermarket. Whatever. Just fill the page.


Then take your scissors and cut the lines of text into strips.

Then cut the strips into both single words and smaller phrases that take your fancy.

Now start rearranging all this cut up stuff to create new phrases and sentences.

See what occurs. If nothing leaps out at first, keep moving the pieces around until something fits.


A new phrase might inspire you in a way you've not experienced until now. You might come up with a new business or campaign idea. You might see something related to the original text that just wasn't there before.


Or you might go on to write your very own 'Moonage Daydream'. And maybe, predict the future along the way (please let me know if you do).


I'll let the late, great Mr Bowie explain:

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