Reading Writing About Writing

I’m sorry about that title. I thought it was funny. But we can all agree that it’s not nearly as funny as it is ugly. Though perhaps it illustrates how bad some writing can be, and that I need to work on my titles. Perhaps there’s a book that could help me write better titles…

 

Which brings me to the point of this blog post: books that teach us about writing. There are countless valuable books about writing. Some elucidate the complexities of grammar, punctuation and tenses. Other books help us make our writing sound as eloquent or robust as we need it to. I have read a few of these books, but not a lot, as I’m much more selective with them than I am with fiction. This is because reading a book on writing is more time away from reading a good story—and that’s my real mug of joe. As I’m so selective of the books that I read about writing, I figure other writers are too. So I thought I’d recommend and elaborate on three books that helped me with three different aspects of writing:

i) the basics of grammar, punctuation and clarity of expression;

ii) the tricks and treats of rhetorical figures;

iii) writing at a project level: starting a novel and putting in the hard (daily) work until it is completed.

i) The Elements of Style, by Strunk and WhiteThe Elements of Style

This book is on many writers’ lists, and for good reason. EOS doesn’t muck about with topics such as art or differences of opinion; it’s a book about the basics, and about writing clearly and lucidly. It was first composed in 1918 by William Strunk Jr, an English professor at Cornell University. Strunk lost his patience with the shoddy writing given to him by his students, so he wrote the original EOS as a guide and distributed it within the university. It was so useful that it was published two years later for the rest of the world’s benefit. Years later, E.B. White (a former student of Strunk’s) added to it over the course of several revised editions. The newer the version you read, the more content there is, but the message remains the same: write clearly, concisely, and with sympathy for your reader.

It is The Element of Style’s message of clarity that has stuck with me over the years, and I still remember the ranting insistence that writers ‘Omit needless words.” (Read this in the voice of a Dalek and you’ll get a feel for the prescriptive tone that runs through the entire book.) Later in the book, it screams this at you: “OMIT. OMIT. OMIT.” Okay, I added the caps, but you get the idea. I read The Elements of Style when I was nineteen and fairly incompetent. It came to me at the right time, and it gave me a strong grounding in the basics—and the angry voice of William Strunk Jr. was (and still is) in my head, demanding that I ‘make every word tell’.

Behind the draconian tone of the book, I can hear a genuine love of good writing in Strunk’s voice. A lot of people complain about the rigid, uncompromising rules the book sets out, and they’re right to complain: it is too dogmatic, too prescriptive and too general. It’s all of these things. But it’s still brilliant. It’s brilliant because it taught me to avoid splitting the main clause of a sentence at all costs. It taught me how to use punctuation effectively. It taught me how to pace my sentences and paragraphs so that the reader does not stumble. Above everything else, it taught me to always have sympathy for the reader.

Use The Elements of Style to learn the basics of writing. Just remember to take all of the linguistic ranting with a pinch of salt. There are plenty of rules that are beautiful when broken in just the right way, and I’m sure that twenty-year-old me would cringe at my current flagrant disregard for some of the commandments in Strunk’s bible of brevity. But I don’t care: I got what I needed from him. Reading The Elements of Style is a little like learning to parallel park with your driving instructor: you learn all of the rules and pass the test—later, you just make it up and perhaps even do it with one hand.

ii) The Elements of Eloquence, by Mark Forsyth20150304_221207

 

The opening paragraph to The Elements of Eloquence reads:

‘Shakespeare was not a genius. He was, without the distant shadow of a doubt, the most wonderful writer who ever breathed. But not a genius. No angels handed him his lines, no fairies proofread for him. Instead, he learnt techniques, he learnt tricks, and he learnt them well.’ 

This paragraph sets up the agenda of The Elements of Eloquence  and its title is undoubtedly a playful nod to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. The book is a guide to the lost art of rhetoric. And I’m not using ‘lost art’ in the clichéd, clumsy way that people sometimes do. I’m talking about the rhetorical figures that used to be taught in schools in the seventeenth century—the rhetorical devices Shakespeare learnt in school and used masterfully for decades in his plays and poetry. Rhetoric was lost because the bleeding-heart romantics came along and demanded that we all write from the heart and avoid artifice. Rhetoric, as a result, was abandoned, and it has never really made a mainstream resurgence in the literary world. Not explicitly, anyway. Not on purpose. But we have all been using the various rhetorical figures for years—we just didn’t know we were using them… Forsyth refers to our accidental use of these rhetorical figures as ‘cooking blindfolded’ and he compares our experience and education with Shakespeare’s time:

‘What Shakespeare had beaten into him at school, we might, occasionally, use by accident and without realising it.’

When something you read is beautiful, memorable, or perhaps just powerful, then it’s very likely that it employs one of the thirty-nine rhetorical devices described, discussed and explained in EOE. ‘Described, discussed and explained’, from the previous sentence, for instance, is an example of a tricolon, which is explored in chapter sixteen of EOE. The tricolon can roughly be understood as: things sound good when delivered in sets of three. Think about it, test this out. Sets of three sound great. They sound perfect. Sets of two are incomplete and sets of four are cumbersome and listy (listy isn’t actually a word, but we all agree that it ought to be).  We use tricolon, synaesthesia, and merism almost every day, and we use antithesis, hendiadys and andiplosis when we’re being very clever. We use a lot of these devices to make our writing and speech have as much impact as possible.

Getting past the unpronounceable Greek names for the figures of rhetoric, Forsyth has made a previously obscure, intimidating topic into something educational, entertaining and very useful (tricolon again). My reading experience was also helped along by Forsyth’s sharp wit. In each chapter, he uses the specific rhetorical device he is discussing as often as possible, often hilariously, often ridiculously. There are plenty of little payoffs for the astute reader, keen to spot a pun or in-joke. For me, this wasn’t just for entertainment value; Forsyth’s expert use of the figures he described actually helped drill them into my head. Since I read EOE, I have found myself mulling over a sentence or two and realising that what I really want is hendiadys or a diacope. It’s incredibly satisfying to understand and use these rhetorical figures; I feel like my brain has swallowed them gratefully and I seem to be able to access them from time to time, when I really need them.

I would advise, however, that you try not to get carried away with eloquence—especially if it comes at the detriment of what you’re trying to say (Strunk and White’s clarity of expression ought to almost always trump it). Use these rhetorical figures sparingly; when you can’t bear to do without them.

iii) Stephen King On WritingA Memoir of the Craft20150304_221106

Stephen King is one of the most prolific commercially successful authors around. Whether you enjoy his books or not (I do), no one can deny that he works hard. On Writing gave me some idea of how King became a writer, and it gave me insight into King’s daily writing process. If you love Stephen King, you’ll love this book. If you hate him, you may like him after reading this. If you have worked and struggled on a project, such as a novel, a play or a large collection of poetry, then you might need this book as much as I did.

King begins:

‘This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit’

He goes on to say:

‘One notable exception to the bullshit rule is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White. There is little or no detectable bullshit in that book… I’ll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style.

I was relieved when I read this, as I’ve read The Elements of Style twice and have been pushing it on my writing friends for almost a decade. King and I agree on Strunk and White, and we agree on many other things as well.

For one thing, we agree that good ideas don’t come to us from some special creative mode or mindset. I’ve gotten better and better at forming solid story ideas, and it’s because I’m almost always looking for them, so I recognise them when I see them. I never create them from nothing. Instead, ideas collide from reading, listening and observing. I notice these moments of collision. And I scribble them down. But King said it much better in On Writing:

‘Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.’

I had lots of satisfying moments in this book when my ideas aligned with Stephen King’s. It reaffirmed the sneaking suspicion I had that I was starting to become a proper writer. And it’s to people like me, to already maturing writers, that King addresses in On Writing. He is not holding anyone’s hands through the basics. Instead, King talks about the writing process, about setting word-count deadlines each day, and hitting them no matter what. On Writing is not really for beginners (although anyone could enjoy it)—it’s for people that have developed a bit of skill and are now struggling to complete their first draft of their novel—or perhaps, as in my case, their second draft. It’s full of worldly advice and great practical writing tips, but it’s more about living as a writer and the satisfaction and resurrection that can be gained from working hard and writing well.

Dispersed throughout the book, however, King gives plenty of smaller tips that you could take away with you today. Here is a selection of my favourites:

‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs.’ – It almost always sounds better without the adverb. Especially in attributions of speech. The context of the utterance, the scene, the person, the mood, should all imply how someone has said something. Adverbs used in the attribution of speech are almost always redundant, and your writing will be leaner without them.

‘Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.’ – When you write often enough, you get to the stage when you can just turn it on and put in the work; you can always edit it later. What’s most important is getting the words down.

‘Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.’ – This is King’s way of discussing the process of writing first and second drafts. He insists that the first draft is pure creation and that you mustn’t share your work with anyone; it will slow you down; they will poke a hole in it that you can’t fill yet and you’ll lose heart. Momentum is everything with a first draft. He talked about this in an article he wrote back in 1986 for The Writer magazine. In this, he even recommends that you avoid reference books and even a dictionary when you are writing your first draft. If you can’t spell a word ‘just spell it phonetically and correct it later.’ He views any reference or distance from the keyboard as procrastination, and he advises against it. Later, on the second draft, open your door and let people read it. Find out their opinions and their experiences of your writing; read as many reference books as you like. Once you’ve done this, edit your book.

‘Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.’ – King thinks that writers ought to be able to delete parts of their book that aren’t working, or can’t work with the second and third drafts. Sometimes we must delete our favourite parts. Being able to kill our darlings is essential (I should know: I scrapped an entire manuscript that had taken me a year to draft and redraft. Then I started it again, with the same idea).

‘Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.’ – Yup. I agree with this almost completely, but I do think that some quality TV shows and films can help the creative process—though they should never be a replacement for reading. My thoughts on this were made clear at the end my last blog post

i) + ii) + iii) = Conclusion

Read The Elements of Style to help make your writing clear; to ensure that you can say what you want to say. Read The Elements of Eloquence to help make your writing interesting and beautiful, instead of simply relying on your intuitions and cooking blindfolded. Read On Writing to help turn your clear, eloquent writing into entire, cohesive novels, plays and collections. These books, however, are only a food supplement in your writing diet—they are vitamin pills. They are not steak or eggs or a nutritious salad (tricolon). None of these books are nearly as helpful as writing, actually writing (this is a diacope). You ought to write and eat every day. Write because it’s the best thing you can do with your time, and because it makes you happy. It makes me happy and gives me purpose. In fact, I don’t know how other people can stay sane without it. King, once again, says it better than me:

‘Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.’

Have your say. Leave a comment.
  1. Dan says:

    Great post Peter. As you know, EOS has been on my to-read list forever, so you’ve pushed me slightly closer to picking it up.

    Reading writing about writing is great, but I’d also recommend listening to writing about writing. The audiobook version of On Writing is great. Make sure you listen to it if you ever come to back to this book.

    Dan

    Reply
  2. Peter McCune says:

    Cheers Dan. I hope I have sold you on The Elements of Style. As I said in the post, take some of the pushy, prescriptive stuff with a pinch of salt, but it is a very useful book. It’ll appeal to your methodical nature.

    I’d love to listen to Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s written so well and I’d like to hear King himself read it out.

    Reply

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