This post is a piece by Irina Dumitrescu on how to write well, which was originally published last fall in Times Literary Supplement. Here’s a link to the original.
How to write well
Rules, style and the ‘well-made sentence’
By Irina Dumitrescu
IN THIS REVIEW
WHY THEY CAN’T WRITE
Killing the five-paragraph essay and other necessities
288pp. Johns Hopkins University Press. £20.50 (US $27.95).
WRITING TO PERSUADE
How to bring people over to your side
224pp. Norton. £18.99 (US $26.95).
EVERY DAY I WRITE THE BOOK
Notes on style
256pp. Duke University Press. Paperback, £20.99 (US $24.95).
FIRST YOU WRITE A SENTENCE
The elements of reading, writing … and life
240pp. Penguin. Paperback, £9.99.
MEANDER, SPIRAL, EXPLODE
Design and pattern in narrative
272pp. Catapult. Paperback, $16.95
In high school a close friend told me about a lesson her father had received when he was learning to write in English. Any essay could be improved by the addition of one specific phrase: “in a world tormented by the spectre of thermonuclear holocaust.” We thought it would be hilarious to surprise our own teachers with this gem, but nothing came of it. Twenty years later, as I looked through the files on an old computer, I discovered my high school compositions. There, at the end of an essay on Hugo Grotius and just war theory I must have written for this purpose alone, was that irresistible rhetorical flourish.
As much as we might admire what is fresh and innovative, we all learn by imitating patterns. Babies learning to speak do not immediately acquire the full grammar of their mother tongue and a vocabulary to slot into it, but inch slowly into the language by repeating basic phrases, then varying them. Adults learning a foreign language are wise to do the same. Pianists run through exercises to train their dexterity, basketball players run through their plays, dancers rehearse combos they can later slip into longer choreographies. To be called “formulaic” is no compliment, but whenever people express themselves or take action in the world, they rely on familiar formulas.
Writing advice is caught in this paradox. Mavens of clear communication know that simple rules are memorable and easy to follow. Use a verb instead of a noun. Change passive to active. Cut unnecessary words. Avoid jargon. No aspiring author will make the language dance by following these dictates, but they will be understood, and that is something. The same holds for structure. In school, pupils are drilled in the basic shapes of arguments, such as the “rule of three,” the “five-paragraph essay” or, à l’américaine, the Hamburger Essay (the main argument being the meat). Would-be novelists weigh their Fichtean Curves against their Hero’s Journeys, and screenwriters can buy software that will ensure their movie script hits every beat prescribed by Blake Snyder in his bestselling book Save the Cat! (2005). And why not? Shakespeare patterned his comedies on Terence’s Latin romps, and Terence stole his plots from the Greek Menander. Milton copied Virgil, who plagiarized Homer. The history of literature is a catwalk on which the same old skeletons keep coming out in new clothes.
Style unsettles this pedagogy of models and moulds. As the novelist Elizabeth McCracken once told Ben Yagoda in an interview, “A writer’s voice lives in his or her bad habits … the trick is to make them charming bad habits.” Readers longing for something beyond mere information – verbal fireworks, the tremor of an authentic connection, a touch of quiet magic – will do well to find the rule-breakers on the bookshop shelf. Idiosyncrasies (even mistakes) account for the specific charm of a given author, and they slyly open the door to decisions of taste. Think of David Foster Wallace’s endless sentences, George R. R. Martin’s neologisms, the faux-naivety of Gertrude Stein. In his book on literary voice, The Sound on the Page (2004), Yagoda argues that style reveals “something essential” and impossible to conceal about an author’s character. The notion that the way a person arranges words is inextricably tied to their moral core has a long history, but its implication for teaching writing is what interests me here: convince or compel writers to cleave too closely to a set of prescribed rules, and you chip away at who they are.
This explains why John Warner’s book about writing, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, contains almost no advice on how to write. A long-time college instructor, Warner hints at his argument in his subtitle: his is a polemical take on American standardized testing practices, socioeconomic conditions, and institutions of learning that destroy any love or motivation young people might have for expressing themselves in writing. Against the perennial assumption that today’s students are too lazy and precious to work hard, Warner holds firm: “Students are not entitled or coddled. They are defeated.” The symbol of the US’s misguided approach to education is the argumentative structure drilled into each teenager as a shortcut for thinking and reflection. “If writing is like exercise,” he quips, “the five-paragraph essay is like one of those ab belt doohickeys that claim to electroshock your core into a six-pack.”
What is to blame for students’ bad writing? According to Warner, the entire context in which it is taught. He rails against school systems that privilege shallow “achievement” over curiosity and learning, a culture of “surveillance and compliance” (including apps that track students’ behaviour and report it to parents in real time), an obsession with standardized testing that is fundamentally inimical to thoughtful reading and writing, and a love of faddish psychological theories and worthless digital learning projects.
It is easy for a lover of good writing to share Warner’s anger at the shallow and mechanistic culture of public education in the United States, easy to smile knowingly when he notes that standardized tests prize students’ ability to produce “pseudo-academic BS,” meaningless convoluted sentences cobbled together out of sophisticated-sounding words. Warner’s argument against teaching grammar is harder to swallow. Seeing in grammar yet another case of rules and correctness being put ahead of thoughtful engagement, Warner claims, “the sentence is not the basic skill or fundamental unit of writing. The idea is.” Instead of assignments, he gives his students “writing experiences,” interlocked prompts designed to hone their ability to observe, analyse and communicate. His position on grammatical teaching is a step too far: it can be a tool as much as a shackle. Still, writers may recognize the truth of Warner’s reflection that “what looks like a problem with basic sentence construction may instead be a struggle to find an idea for the page.”
Trish Hall shares Warner’s belief that effective writing means putting thinking before craft. Hall ran the New York Times’s op-ed page for half a decade, and in Writing To Persuade she shows us how to succeed at one kind of formula, the short newspaper opinion piece. The book is slim, filled out with personal recollections in muted prose, and enlivened by the occasional celebrity anecdote. Her target audience seems to be the kind of educated professionals who regularly read the New York Times, who may even write as part of their work, but who have not thought about what it means to address those who do not share their opinions. Hall does offer useful, sometimes surprising, tips on avoiding jargon, finding a writerly voice, and telling a story, but most of the book is dedicated to cultivating the humanity beneath the writing.
“I can’t overstate the value of putting down your phone and having conversations with people,” she writes. Persuasion is not simply a matter of hammering one’s own point through with unassailable facts and arguments. It is a question of listening to other people, cultivating empathy for their experience, drawing on shared values to reach common ground. It also demands vulnerability; Hall praises writers who “reveal something almost painfully personal even as they connect to a larger issue or story that feels both universal and urgent.”
Much of her advice would not have surprised a classical rhetorician. She even quotes Cicero’s famous remark about it being a mistake to try “to compel others to believe and live as we do,” a mantra for this book. At her best, Hall outlines a rhetoric that is also a guide to living peaceably with others: understanding their desires, connecting. A simple experiment – not finishing other people’s sentences even when you think you know what they will say – exemplifies this understated wisdom. At her worst, Hall is too much the marketer, as when she notes that strong emotions play well on social media and enjoins her readers to “stay away from depressing images and crying people.” There ought to be enough space in a newspaper for frankly expressed opinions about the suffering of humanity. What she demonstrates, however, is that writing for an audience is a social act. Writing To Persuade is a stealth guide to manners for living in a world where conversations are as likely to take place in 280 characters on a screen as they are at a dinner table.
In Hall’s hands, considering other people means following a programmatic set of writing instructions. Amitava Kumar, a scholar who has written well-regarded works of memoir and journalism, thinks another way is possible. In Every Day I Write the Book: Notes on Style, he breaks out of the strictures of academic prose by creating a virtual community of other writers on his pages. The book is a collection of short meditations on different topics related to writing, its form and practice, primarily in the university. Kumar’s style is poised and lyrical elsewhere, but here he takes on a familiar, relaxed persona, and he often lets his interlocutors have the best lines. Selections from his reading bump up against email conversations, chats on the Vassar campus, and Facebook comments; it is a noisy party where everyone has a bon mot at the ready. The book itself is assembled like a scrapbook, filled with reproductions of photographs, screenshots, handwritten notes and newspaper clippings Kumar has gathered over the years.
It is, in other words, an inspiring mess, a book that in its haphazard organization is its own argument for playfulness and improvisation. Like Warner, Kumar cannot stand “the five-paragraph costume armor of the high school essay.” Nor does he have much patience for other formulaic aspects of academic writing: didactic topic sentences, or jargony vocabulary such as “emergence” and “post-capitalist hegemony.” In his description of a website that produces meaningless theoretical prose at the touch of a button, Kumar notes that “the academy is the original random sentence generator.” He is not anti-intellectual; his loyalties lie with the university, even as he understands its provinciality too well. But he asks his fellow writers to hold on fiercely to the weird and whimsical elements in their own creations, to be “inventive in our use of language and in our search for form.”
This means many things in practice. Kumar includes a section of unusual writing exercises, many of them borrowed from other authors: rewriting a brilliant passage badly to see what made it work; scribbling just what will fit on a Post-it Note to begin a longer piece; writing letters to public figures. Other moments are about connection. In a chapter on voice, he quotes the poet and novelist Bhanu Kapil’s description of how she began a series of interviews with Indian and Pakistani women: “The first question I asked, to a young Muslim woman … Indian parents, thick Glaswegian accent, [was] ‘Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother?’ She burst into tears.” That one question could fill many libraries. Invention also means embracing collaboration with editors, and understanding writing as “a practice of revision and extension and opening.” Kumar calls for loyalty to one’s creative calling, wherever it may lead. The reward? Nothing less than freedom and immortality.
But surely craft still matters? We may accept that writing is rooted in the ethical relationships between teachers, students, writers, editors and those silent imagined readers. Does this mean that the skill of conveying an idea in language in a clear and aesthetically pleasing fashion is nothing but the icing on the cake? Joe Moran’s exquisite book First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing … and Life suggests otherwise. As befits a cultural historian, Moran compares writing sentences to crafting other artisanal objects – they are artworks and spaces of refuge, gifts with which an author shapes the world to be more beautiful and capacious and kind. Like a town square or a city park, “a well-made sentence shows … silent solicitude for others. It cares.”
Moran’s own sentences are so deliciously epigrammatic that I considered giving up chocolate in favour of re-reading his book. Because he has dedicated an entire volume to one small form, he has the leisure to attend to fine details. As he explores sentences from every angle, he describes the relative heat of different verbs, the delicately shading nuances of punctuation choices, how short words feel in the mouth, the opportunity of white space. “Learn to love the feel of sentences,” he writes with a connoisseur’s delight, “the arcs of anticipation and suspense, the balancing phrases, the wholesome little snap of the full stop.”
The book is full of advice, but Moran’s rules are not meant to inhibit. He will happily tell you how to achieve a style clear as glass, then praise the rococo rhetorician who “wants to forge reality through words, not just gaze at it blankly through a window.” He is more mentor than instructor, slowly guiding us to notice and appreciate the intricacies of a well-forged phrase. And he does so with tender generosity towards the unloved heroism of “cussedly making sentences that no one asked for and no one will be obliged to read.” As pleasurable as it is to watch Moran unfold the possibilities of an English sentence, his finest contribution is an understanding of the psychology – fragile, labile – of the writer. He knows that a writer must fight distraction, bad verbal habits, and the cheap appeal of early drafts to find their voice. There it is! “It was lost amid your dishevelled thoughts and wordless anxieties, until you pulled it out of yourself, as a flowing line of sentences.”
Human beings take pleasure in noticing nature’s patterns, according to Moran, and these patterns help them to thrive, sometimes in unforeseen ways. A sentence is also form imposed on chaos, and his suggestion that it has an organic role in the survival of the species might seem bold. (Though how many of us owe our lives to a parent who said the right words in a pleasing order?) The novelist Jane Alison’s invigorating book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative follows a similar impulse, seeking the elegant forms that order nature in the structures of stories and novels. Her bugbear is the dramatic arc, the shape that Aristotle noticed in the tragedies of his time but that has become a tyrant of creative writing instruction. “Something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculo-sexual, no?” Alison has other ideas for excitement.
In brief, compelling meditations on contemporary fiction, she teases out figures we might expect to spy from a plane window or in the heart of a tree. Here are corkscrews and wavelets and fractals and networks of cells. Is this forced? Alison recognizes the cheekiness of her project, knows her readings of form may not convince every reader. Her aim is not to classify tales, to pin them like butterflies on a styrofoam board. She knows, for example, that any complex literary narrative will create a network of associations in the reader’s mind. Her goal is to imagine how a reader might experience a story, looking for “structures that create an inner sensation of traveling toward something and leave a sense of shape behind, so that the stories feel organized.”
Shapes appear in Alison’s mind as clusters of images, so what begins as literary analysis condenses into a small poem. For “meander,” Alison asks us to “picture a river curving and kinking, a snake in motion, a snail’s silver trail, or the path left by a goat.” She speaks of the use of colour in narrative “as a unifying wash, a secret code, or a stealthy constellation.” The point is not ornamentation, though Alison can write a sentence lush enough to drown in, but tempting fiction writers to render life more closely. Against the grand tragedy of the narrative arc, she proposes small undulations: “Dispersed patterning, a sense of ripple or oscillation, little ups and downs, might be more true to human experience than a single crashing wave.” These are the shifting moods of a single day, the temporary loss of the house keys, the sky a sunnier hue than expected.
The Roman educator Quintilian once insisted that an orator must be a good man. It was a commonplace of his time. The rigorous study of eloquence, he thought, required a mind undistracted by vice. The books discussed here inherit this ancient conviction that the attempt to write well is a bettering one. Composing a crisp sentence demands attention to fine detail and a craftsmanlike dedication to perfection. Deciding what to set to paper requires the ability to imagine where a reader might struggle or yawn. In a world tormented by spectres too reckless to name, care and empathy are welcome strangers.
Irina Dumitrescu is Professor of English Medieval Studies at the University of Bonn