Archives For Writing Tips

Writing to Discover

January 7, 2012 — Leave a comment

The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.

Gustave Flaubert


December 30, 2011 — Leave a comment

I am looking forward to reading Doug Wilson’s book Wordsmithy (although I hope it does not all come from his past blog posts. I hate blog books.) Andy Naselli has some highlights from the book.

Wilson gives seven pieces of advice (pp. 10–11):

  1. Know something about the world, and by this I mean the world outside of books. This might require joining the Marines, or working on an oil rig or as a hashslinger at a truck stop in Kentucky. Know what things smell like out there. If everything you write smells like a library, then your prospective audience will be limited to those who like the smell of libraries.
  2. Read. Read constantly. Read the kind of stuff you wish you could write. Read until your brain creaks. Tolkien said that his ideas sprang up from the leaf mold of his mind: your readings are the trees where your fallen leaves would come from. Mind mulch. Cognitive compost.
  3. Read mechanical helps. By this I mean dictionaries, etymological histories, books of anecdotes, dictionaries of foreign phrases, books of quotations, books on how to write dialogue, and so on. The plot will usually fail to grip, so just read a page a day. If you think it makes you out to be too much of a word-dork, then don’t tell anybody about it. Let’s keep it between you and me.
  4. Stretch before your routines. If you want to write Italian sonnets, try to write some short stories. If you want to write a few essays, write a novel, or maybe a novella if you are pressed for time. If you want to write haiku, then limber up with opinion pieces for The Washington Post.
  5. Be at peace with being lousy for a while. Chesterton once said that anything worth doing was worth doing badly. He was right. Only an insufferable egoist expects to be brilliant first time out. Some writers—those who live charmed lives—have been brilliant first time out, but this happens so rarely that we shouldn’t care who they are. You can’t copy them anyway. You can copy those who got good.
  6. Learn other languages, preferably languages that are upstream from ours. This would include Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon. The brain is not a shoebox that “gets full,” but is rather a muscle that expands its capacity with increased use. The more you know, the more you can know. The more you can do with words, the more you can do. As it turns out.
  7. Keep a commonplace book. Write down any notable phrases that occur to you or that you come across. If it is one that you have found in another writer, and it is striking, then quote it, as the fellow said, or modify it to make it yours. If Chandler said that a guy had a cleft chin you could hide a marble in, that should come in useful sometime. How could it not come in useful? If Wodehouse said somebody had an accent you could turn handsprings on, then he might have been talking about Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland. Tinker with stuff. Get your fingerprints on it.

The rest of the book breaks down each suggestion into seven more pieces (a chapter for each). Here are some excerpts:

  1. There are some writers that I want to read no matter what they are talking about—because they are the kind of writers who write about things they love. (p. 26)
  2. Reading solely within one genre is a form of literary provincialism, and it will provide you with a distinctive but unhelpfully narrow accent. (p. 31)
  3. [R]ead like someone who will forget most of it. . . . Most of what is shaping you in the course of your reading you will not be able to remember. . . . Most of the good your reading and
    education has done for you is not something you can recall at all. . . . open. You read widely to be shaped, not so that you might be prepared to regurgitate. (pp. 34, 36)
  4. [W]hen you have been to a number of other places, the content of your conversation is more interesting. Who would you rather listen to: someone who has been around the world three times on a oil freighter, or someone who never came out of his basement—even if he had really sweet bandwidth down there? (p. 66)
  5. In the eighteenth century, during the ascendancy of the English dictionary makers and grammarians, it was foolishly thought that Latin was superior to English, and that things which couldn’t be done in Latin, like ending sentences with prepositions, shouldn’t be done in English. This is where we get the absurd rule that one must never, ever, end a sentence with a preposition. As Winston Churchill put it, “That’s the sort of nonsense up with which we shall not put.” . . . Another dumb thing was that it was thought that because Latin infinitives, being one word, could not be divided with an adverb, this meant English infinitives should not be so divided. . . . All this said, fussy grammarians need friends too, and so you may seek out and encourage them. Drop them a little note, telling them that they are your very favorite fussy grammarian, out with whom you like to hang. And if anybody winced there at my use of a plural pronoun for an indefinite singular, then may I suggest counseling? (pp. 99–100)

Quotes on Reading

December 13, 2011 — Leave a comment

When I get a little money, I buy books. If any is left, I buy food and clothes. – Erasmus

We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever. – Philip Pullman

If one reads enough books one has a fighting chance. Or better, one’s chances of survival increase with each book one reads. – Sherman Alexie

Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul. – Joyce Carol Oates

You should never read just for “enjoyment.” Read to make yourself smarter! Less judgmental. More apt to understand your friends’ insane behavior, or better yet, your own. Pick “hard books.” Ones you have to concentrate on while reading. And for god’s sake, don’t let me ever hear you say, “I can’t read fiction. I only have time for the truth.” Fiction is the truth, fool! Ever hear of “literature”? That means fiction, too, stupid. – John Waters

There is no friend as loyal as a book. – Ernest Hemingway

What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. – Anne Lamott

I am simply a ‘book drunkard.’ Books have the same irresistible temptation for me that liquor has for its devotee. I cannot withstand them. – L.M. Montgomery

Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them. – Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler)

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief. – Franz Kafka

HT: Scot McKnight

Which is your favorite?

Words can be like X-rays, if you use them properly—they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced. That’s one of the things I try to teach my students–how to write piercingly.

Helmholtz in Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (HarperPerennial: New York, 2006), 70.

  • 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.”

Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One

 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.

Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One, 37, 44.