writing well

After thirty years of teaching a university course in something called advanced prose style, my accumulated wisdom on the subject, inspissated into a single thought, is that writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned—and that, friends, is the sound of one hand clapping. A. J. Liebling offers a complementary view, more concise and stripped of paradox, which runs: “The only way to write is well, and how you do it is your own damn business.” Learning to write sound, interesting, sometimes elegant prose is the work of a lifetime. The only way I know to do it is to read a vast deal of the best writing available, prose and poetry, with keen attention, and find a way to make use of this reading in one’s own writing. The first step is to become a slow reader. No good writer is a fast reader, at least not of work with the standing of literature. Writers perforce read differently from everyone else. Most people ask three questions of what they read: (1) What is being said? (2) Does it interest me? (3) Is it well constructed? Writers also ask these questions, but two others along with them: (4) How did the author achieve the effects he has? And (5) What can I steal, properly camouflaged of course, from the best of what I am reading for my own writing? This can slow things down a good bit.

All sorts of people write books that promise shortcuts to writing well, most not particularly helpful, if only because shortcuts are not finally available. Over the years, I have consulted many of these books, on rare occasions taking away a helpful hint or two, but not much more. The most famous is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which is devoted to teaching the composition of prose clear, crisp, and clean of excess verbiage or tricky syntax, served up in what is called the active voice. Nothing wrong with clean, crisp, and clean prose, or with the active voice, but The Elements of Style is limited in its usefulness, if only because there are more ways of writing well than the ideal advocated by its authors. On the Strunk and White standard, for example, I suspect my opening sentence would have to be heavily edited, if not deleted.

The best book on the art of writing that I know is F. L. Lucas’s Style (1955). Lucas was a Cambridge don, a Greek scholar, and an excellent literary essayist, especially good on eighteenth-century writers, who wrote a once-famous book called The Decline and Fall of the Romantic Ideal. Style is filled with fine things, but the most useful to me in my own writing has been Lucas’s assertion that one does best always to attempt to use strong words to begin and end sentences. Straightaway this means eliminating the words “It” and “There” to begin sentences and dropping also the pompous “Indeed.” This advice also reinstates and gives new life to the old schoolmarmish rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition, for a prepositon is almost never a strong word.

via The New Criterion.