Category Archives: Writing
Today marks the 212th birthday of John Henry Newman (1801–1890), a prolific Roman Catholic author. And while there’s much in his theology to trouble a reformed reader, he was a bright intellectual giant with a lot of wisdom on topics like education, church history, and literature (to name a few categories). I enjoy reading Newman mostly for his prose style, and while reading along I like to capture and collect his best advice to writers. Four of those excerpts I’ll post here, all taken from his book The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated (London, 1875):
Study and meditation being imperative, can it be denied that one of the most effectual means by which we are able to ascertain our understanding of a subject, to bring out our thoughts upon it, to clear our meaning, to enlarge our views of its relations to other subjects, and to develop it generally, is to write down carefully all we have to say about it? People indeed differ in matters of this kind, but I think that writing is a stimulus to the mental faculties, to the logical talent, to originality, to the power of illustration, to the arrangement of topics, second to none. Till a man begins to put down his thoughts about a subject on paper he will not ascertain what he knows and what he does not know; and still less will he be able to express what he does know. (422)
There are two sorts of eloquence, the one indeed scarce deserves the name of it, which consists chiefly in laboured and polished periods, an over-curious and artificial arrangement of figures, tinselled over with a gaudy embellishment of words, which glitter, but convey little or no light to the understanding. This kind of writing is for the most part much affected and admired by the people of weak judgment and vicious taste. … The other sort of eloquence is quite the reverse to this, and which may be said to be the true characteristic of the Holy Scriptures; where the excellence does not arise from a laboured and far-fetched elocution, but from a surprising mixture of simplicity and majesty, which is a double character, so difficult to be united that it is seldom to be met with in compositions merely human. (270)
A great author, Gentlemen, is not one who merely has a copia verborum, whether in prose or verse, and can, as it were, turn on at his will any number of splendid phrases and swelling sentences; but he is one who has something to say and knows how to say it. … He writes passionately, because he feels keenly; forcibly, because he conceives vividly; he sees too clearly to be vague; he is too serious to be otiose; he can analyze his subject, and therefore he is rich; he embraces it as a whole and in its parts, and therefore he is consistent; he has a firm hold of it, and therefore he is luminous. When his imagination wells up, it overflows in ornament; when his heart is touched, it thrills along his verse. He always has the right word for the right idea, and never a word too much. If he is brief, it is because few words suffice; when he is lavish of them, still each word has its mark, and aids, not embarrasses, the vigorous march of his elocution. He expresses what all feel, but all cannot say. (291-93)
Speech, and therefore literature, which is its permanent record, is essentially a personal work. It is not some production or result, attained by the partnership of several persons, or by machinery, or by any natural process, but in its very idea it proceeds, and must proceed, from some one given individual. Two persons cannot be the authors of the sounds which strike our ear; and, as they cannot be speaking one and the same speech, neither can they be writing one and the same lecture or discourse — which must certainly belong to some one person or other, and is the expression of that one person’s ideas and feelings — ideas and feelings personal to himself, though others may have parallel and similar ones — proper to himself, in the same sense as his voice, his air, his countenance, his carriage, and his action, are personal. (273-74)
Writes non-fiction author and editor Verlyn Klinkenborg in his insightful new book Several Short Sentences About Writing (Knopf, 2012), page 67:
Your job as a writer is making sentences.
Your other jobs include fixing sentences, killing sentences, and arranging sentences.
If this is the case — making, fixing, killing, arranging — how can your writing possibly flow?
Flow is something the reader experiences, not the writer.
A writer may write painstakingly,
Assembling the work slowly, like a mosaic,
Fitting and refitting sentences and paragraphs over the years.
And yet to the reader the writing may seem to flow.
The reader’s experience of your prose has nothing to do with how hard or easy it was for you to make.
You’re not writing for a reader in the mirror whose psychological state reflects your own.
You have only your own working world to consider.
The reader reads in another world entirely.
Each year I set aside the month of January to read (and re-read) great books on writing. And each year I discover one or two worthy new titles to add to my bowed shelf of books on the topic.
I suppose the thrill of discovering a new great book on writing is a feeling shared only by fellow wordsmiths. But it is sweet, no? I distinctly remember the bookstore where in 2006 I discovered Virginia Tufte’s magnificent book Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. I return to her book every year to be inspired in the delicate art of sentence crafting. And I still remember the smell of the bookstore where I discovered Stanley Fish’s, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, in 2011. Like I said, finding great books on writing is memorable.
This past year I added four new impressive titles to my shelf, so I guess I’ll call them my favorite books of 2012 on writing:
- Jack Hart, Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction (University of Chicago)
- Douglas Wilson, Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life (Canon)
- Constance Hale, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing (W. W. Norton)
- Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences About Writing (Knopf)
C. S. Lewis said he had no use for reviews of his own works. The positive reviews puffed him up, the critical reviews riled him up, and neither the puffing nor the riling were good for the soul. So I should stop reading blog reviews, I really should, especially after the most recent one said my book was too “wordy.” That’s never been said of me before. What most people would never guess is that I am a fan of the long sentence, and here are some nice quotes on their value.
Writes essayist and novelist Pico Iyer in his recent article:
No writer can compete, for speed and urgency, with texts or CNN news flashes or RSS feeds, but any writer can try to give us the depth, the nuances — the “gaps,” as Annie Dillard calls them — that don’t show up on many screens. Not everyone wants to be reduced to a sound bite or a bumper sticker.
Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or. With each clause, we’re taken further and further from trite conclusions — or that at least is the hope — and away from reductionism, as if the writer were a dentist, saying “Open wider” so that he can probe the tender, neglected spaces in the reader (though in this case it’s not the mouth that he’s attending to but the mind).
The long sentence does make probing ambiguity possible, but it can also communicate stout specificity that short sentences sometimes lack. Says Brooks Landon in his course Building Great Sentences:
Cumulative sentences [ie long, right-branching sentences] can take any number of forms, detailing both frozen or static scenes and moving processes, their insistent rhythm always asking for another modifying phrase, allowing us to achieve ever-greater degrees of specificity and precision, a process of focusing the sentence in much the same way a movie camera can focus and refocus on a scene, zooming in for a close-up to reveal almost microscopic detail, panning back to offer a wide-angle panorama, offering new angles or perspectives from which to examine a scene or consider an idea. …
Cumulative sentences that start with a brief base and then start picking up new information much as a snowball gets larger as it rolls downhill, fascinate me with their ability to add information that actually makes the sentence easier to read and more satisfying because it starts answering questions as quickly as an inquisitive reader might think of them, using each modifying phrase to clarify what has gone before, and to reduce the need for subsequent explanatory sentences, flying in the face of the received idea that cutting words rather than adding them is the most effective way to improve writing, reminding us that while in some cases, less in indeed more, in many cases more is more, and more is what our writing needs.
Wise words from Douglas Wilson for writers who have a family to care for, taken from his new book Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life (Canon Press, 2011), page 40:
I have read enough books to know that the “Acknowledgements” section frequently includes a tribute to the wife and kids, who always let Dad go off to the study for the interminable time it took to produce the book. This is a reasonable thing to acknowledge, of course, but I would encourage writers not to overdo it — the disappearing that is, not the acknowledging. When an extra load develops, try to have it land on you and not on the family. If it has to get done now, then get up at five, and nobody else pays. So if you need to, get up at five, but always try to go home at five.
Think of it this way. A 60-hour work week is an honest job and a significant load, but a lot of the problems that come to people who work this much happen because of where those 60 hours are placed. Apportion 40 hours to your regular job, the calling which pays the bills, and then 20 hours for your half-time job of getting a writing career started. It is possible to work those 60 hours and still have lots of time left over for family. A week has a total of 168 hours in it. Sixty hours of work leaves 108, and 8 hours of sleep a night take away another 56 hours, leaving you with 52 hours a week to play tag in the backyard with the kids.
A tip for writers from Douglas Wilson, Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life (Canon Press, 2011), pages 36–37:
We test students right after they read something mostly to ensure that they have in fact read it. From this, many have drawn the erroneous conclusion that the only good that can be extracted from the reading is that which can be displayed on or measured by such a test.
This is wildly inaccurate. Most of the good your reading and education has done for you is not something you can recall at all. . . .
Mark every striking thing that you read. You won’t remember everything you read, and you won’t even remember everything you mark. Nevertheless, it is not a sin to remember some things or to mark them in such a way as to be able to find them again. I use blue highlighters on everything, to such an extent that one of my granddaughters assumed, reasonably enough, that this is what I use whenever I am “coloring.”
But you are not cramming for a test. You are simply marking things because this is a good way to read with your eyes open. You read widely to be shaped, not so that you might be prepared to regurgitate. Read like someone who can afford to forget most of what you read. It does not matter because you are still going to be shaped by it.
Here’s a wise caution for all preachers, teachers, and writers who frequently draw from the vocabulary of the faith — words like sin, grace, Christ, and a host of other sanctified terms that emerge over time within our particular circles — but who are tempted to use the terms without ever stopping to explain their meaning. Helmut Thielicke explains the danger, and then proposes one helpful practice, in his book The Trouble with the Church: A Call for Renewal (Harper & Row, 1965), pages 36–38:
Where is the average person today who, when he hears the word “sin,” really hears what the New Testament meant by that word? For whom today does this word still say that here man is being addressed at the point of his resistance and opposition to God, that this means man in his will to assert his autonomy, his insistence that everything centers in man, his incredible passion for security, his lostness in preoccupation with the moment and that which is tangible and immediately at hand? And yet all this must be heard when we hear the word “sin,” if for no other reason than to understand that it is possible for a sinner to be at the same time an example of moral perfection and that he need by no means be a criminal, an antisocial, or even a person who lacks seriousness. Were not the Pharisees ethically very respectable people? And yet for Jesus they were more drastic examples of sin than publicans and prostitutes.
And the word “Christ” itself? What would really be the result if we were to investigate the exchange value of that term in the psychological substructure of the average man today? What we would come out with would probably be some idea of a fabulously wise man or a perfect human being.
The point is that we need to say what we mean by these terms; we dare not throw them at people as supposedly valid coins whose value is immediately recognized. Otherwise we shall all too thoughtlessly reach out for them with the notion that they are perfectly familiar, whereas the truth is that the metal begins to glow and burn only when we have some idea of what these coins really signify. …
I once experimented with students, having them prepare sermons in which the conventional terms like “God,” “sin,” “grace,” etc. did not appear. The words had to be paraphrased. I think this is a good exercise, even though it has importance only as an interim practice. For we should not discontinue the use of these words in the pulpit; all we need is a withdrawal-cure because of the thoughtless use we make of them. We need to learn to overcome the temptation to string together the old words in different variations, because then souls remain underfed and are lost.
On Friday I downloaded a pre-release of the Perseus Classics Collection into my Logos 4 library. The new collection is the largest single batch of books I’ve downloaded since I began using Logos nearly two years ago. The collection is a library in itself of over 1,100 ancient Greek and Latin titles and includes many corresponding English translations and helpful commentaries. Authors include Aristotle, Cicero, Homer, Plato, Plutarch, Sophocles, Demosthenes, and many others.
The release of this massive collection is significant step for New Testament studies since many of the Greek titles are referenced in technical Greek reference works and lexicons like TDNT, BDAG, and EDNT. The folks at Logos have announced on their website that over time they plan to add lemma tags to all the Greek books and add hyperlinks to the lexical reference to correspond to the original books in the Perseus Classics Collection. So when you see a reference in TDNT to, say, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, the reference will be hyperlinked and a click will land you in Aristotle’s work to read the context for yourself.
Skilled Greek exegetes will benefit from the collection because of the tags and hyperlinks, but what about those who want to engage the classic Greek works on a less technical level? Most of the books are available as English translations. With these English translations the collection is quite accessible to all readers and offers many key books that can help sharpen your communication skills.
Last month I read Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose by Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner (Princeton, 2011). This book was an inspiring and helpful guide to understanding the persuasive power of writing in the classic style, a style that seeks to persuade by presenting truth as clearly as possible by a writer whose style builds symmetry with his reader. Write Thomas and Turner:
[The] sense of shared competence is characteristic of the relationship between writer and reader in classic style. There is always a tacit appeal to a standard of perception and judgment that is assumed to be general, rather than special. There is no need for the writer to make appeals to his sincerity, for example, or to some special insight or competence, to arcane or technical knowledge, or to a lifetime of experience obviously not available to anyone else. …
The classic symmetry between writer and reader is broken whenever the writer presents distinctions as if they are the product of her exceptional insight or temper, distinctions the reader could not have been trusted to see on his own in the right circumstances. (50–51)
If you have read the nonfiction works of C.S. Lewis you have been exposed to the classic style. Of all styles, the classic style is powerful one, but it’s also a subtle one that requires interested writers to do a lot of reading in the classics. Thomas and Turner motivated me to read more classic Greek literature and introduced me to many of the best-written ancient models of classic style. The classics that come highly recommended by Thomas and Turner are here available in readable English translations in the Logos collection. These include titles like:
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
- Euclid, The Elements of Geometry
- Aristotle, Poetics
- Aristotle, Rhetoric
- Plato, Apology
- Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, books 1-3
- Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, books 4-6
- Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, books 7-9
- Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, books 10-12
A wide range of readers will equally benefit from this collection, from skilled technicians of ancient Greek and to readers who engage the classics only in English translations.
So what is the cost of this library of classics?
The Perseus Classics Collection is free for Logos 4 users who simply need to place a pre-order. When it’s ready to download, the entire collection (over 600 MB of text!) will be added to your Logos library.
Pre-order the Perseus Classics Collection and find a full list of titles here.
Many thanks to our friends at Logos!
Alan Jacobs, Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant (Eerdmans, 2010), page 3:
I may not be much of a writer, but I do like sentences; indeed I love them, and think about them a lot–shockingly often, really. I am one of the few remaining Americans blessed with the opportunity to walk to and from work each day, and as I walk I am likely to be rolling sentences around in my head. I have even stopped listening to This American Life on my iPod, the better to facilitate concentration. Sometimes, when I want extra time to consider my options–the walk is only about fifteen minutes–I take a detour to Starbucks. I enjoy the coffee, but I’m really just prolonging my commute for the sake of the sentences.
Stanley Fish makes this argument in his new book How To Write A Sentence: And How To Read One (Harper: 2011), and it defines for me something that has been morphing in my writing philosophy over the last couple of years. At some point I began shifting time away from grammatical studies and investing more time in the study of logic. I was pleased to read an author who articulated this intuitive shift. Fish writes,
Many people are put off writing because they fear committing one or more of the innumerable errors that seem to lie in wait for them at every step of composition. But if one understands that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships and that the number of relationships involved is finite, one understands too that there is only one error to worry about, the error of being illogical, and only one rule to follow: make sure that every component of your sentences is related to the other components in a way that is clear and unambiguous (unless ambiguity is what you are aiming at). (p. 20)
In other words, don’t let the fear of breaking grammatical rules stop you from writing. Seek first to make logical connections in your writing, make those connections clear, and gauge your success on how well you make them. This point is liberating to me as a writer, but more than liberating, it inspires my writing in a way that grammar cannot, since, as Fish writes, writing with an eye on logic will force your mind to think of correlations and contradictions in ways that can add new dimensions to your thinking and writing (see pp. 30-33).
Another point that Fish makes well is the importance of determining a sentence’s purpose. He asks: What is the intended effect of the sentences that we write? The question is important because there is a wide range of sentence effects that are reflected in various forms, and each form communicates something different to the reader. Too often writing instruction discusses the how of writing, but not the why.
People write or speak sentences in order to produce an effect, and the success of a sentence is measured by the degree to which the desired effect has been achieved. That is why the prescriptive advice you often get in books like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style—write short sentences, be direct, don’t get lost in a maze of piled-up clauses, avoid the passive voice, place yourself in the background, employ figures of speech sparingly—is useful only in relation to some purposes, and unfortunate in relation to others. The first thing to ask when writing a sentence is “What am I trying to do?” … In short, pick your effect, figure out what you want to do, and then figure out how to do it. (pp. 37, 44)
Fish’s point is brilliantly illustrated a few pages later when he explains how using a short and long sentence create different effects for the reader.
Shorter sentences feel planned because they have the proverbial air of being pre-packaged. The writer is saying, “I didn’t make this up on the fly; I’m just giving form to what everyone knows.” Longer sentences can achieve a similar effect by calling attention to their own construction. The writer is saying, “I’m not just putting down whatever comes into my head; I’m giving you the ordered fruits of my considered deliberations.” (p. 48)
Can you see the difference? Short sentences proverbially restate an idea that should be familiar to the reader. On the other hand, longer sentences are better suited for communicating the inner life and the extended deliberations in the author’s mind—thoughts that are anything but proverbial and assumed, but are unique, revealing the secret thought life of the author. Paragraph-length descriptions of the effects of certain sentence styles, like the one I quote above and the others spread throughout the book, illustrate how different sentence forms accomplish different tasks, and reinforce his motto: “You shall tie yourself to forms and the forms shall set you free” (p. 33). The form is part of the message.
The bulk of the book is comprised of five chapters on subordinate sentences, additive sentences, satirical sentences, first sentences, and last sentences.
- The subordinating style: “which ranks, orders, and sequences things, events, and persons in a way that strongly suggests a world where control is the imperative and everything is in its proper place.”
- The additive style: “which gives the impression of speech and writing just haphazardly tumbling out of the mouth or the thoughts of a writer who is not worrying about getting every particular just right.”
- The satirical style: “employed as a weapon by writers who want to harpoon persons, parties, or society as a whole.”
- First sentences: are “promissory notes. Whether they foreshadow plot, sketch in character, establish mood, or jump-start arguments, the road ahead of them stretches invitingly and all things are, at least for the moment, possible.”
- Last sentences: “are more constrained in their possibilities. They can sum up, refuse to sum up, change the subject, leave you satisfied, leave you wanting more, put everything into perspective, or explode perspectives. They do have one advantage: they become the heirs of the interest that is generated by everything that precedes them; they don’t have to start the engine; all they have to do is shut it down.”
How To Write A Sentence is simple enough that you can learn the very basics of how to construct a sentence to achieve an intended effect. But Fish is also deeply perceptive of what makes a great sentence, and readers will delight in his careful exegesis of many great sentences in literary history. In this short book (162 pages) Fish serves two audiences quite well. It will inspire young writers to write clear, purposeful, sentences; and it will delight advanced writers as it breaks down great sentences. How To Write A Sentence will be added to the shelf with my favorite books on writing and frequently revisited for fresh inspiration.