- Avoid run-on sentences that are hard to read.
- No sentence fragments.
- It behooves us to avoid archaisms.
- Also, avoid awkward or affected alliteration.
- Don't use no double negatives.
- If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times, "Resist hyperbole."
- Avoid commas, that are not necessary.
- Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
- Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
- Writing carefully, dangling participles should not be used.
- Kill all exclamation points!!!
- Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
- Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.
- Take the bull by the hand, and don't mix metaphors.
- Don't verb nouns.
- Never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
- Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.
The following is taken from "How to Write Good" by William Safire. It is a useful and humorous list of what you should avoid in order to improve your writing.
This passage from The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati shows why he's a master at using space metaphorically.
Buzzati could have conveyed the emotional turmoil of leaving home and the unnerving onset of adulthood in a thousand different ways.
The one he chooses is both vivid and memorable.
The protagonist, Giovanni Drogo, is accompanied by a friend for part of the way to his military posting.
On horseback, they reach a hilltop, and, turning round, they take in a view of the town they have left behind.
The town in which they both grew up.
And their town becomes their Past.
From this vantage point, Drogo picks out his bedroom window.
And his bedroom becomes his childhood.
We see the "patient dust" he imagines settling on it.
We squint at the "thin streak of lights" he pictures cutting through the shutters.
And we share the regret and nostalgia that sting his heart and his eyes.
"They had reached the brow of a hill. Drogo turned to see the city against the light: morning smoke rose from the roofs. He picked out the window of his room. Probably it was open. The women were tidying up. They would unmake the bed, shut everything up in a cupboard and then bar the shutters. For months and months no one would enter except the patient dust and, on sunny days, thin streaks of light. There it was, shut up in the dark, the little world of his childhood. His mother would keep it like that so that on his return he could find himself again there, still be a boy within its walls even after his long absence – but of course she was wrong in thinking that she could keep intact a state of happiness which was gone forever or hold back the flight of time, wrong in imagining that when her son came back and the doors and windows were reopened everything would be as before."
from The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati
Write Better To Think Better
In the opening lines of Politics and the English Language, George Orwell explains why the quality of the language we employ is so important.
And why we must not see its dire state as irreversible.
He describes language as a tool that needs to be maintained, sharpened, and well-oiled in order to do its job properly.
To further reinforce his point of view, he uses a powerful analogy, which aims to show how an effect can become a cause, setting off a dangerous downward spiral.
If we improve our language, he maintains, we improve the way we think, not just the way we express ourselves.
And few things are more important to our future.
"Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language – so the argument runs – must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes. Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influences of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers."
from Politics and the English Language by George Orwell
You Belong to Me Now
This is a brief excerpt from the opening pages of A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway.
It's about a stunning muse, who, on a rainy day, enters a Parisian cafe' to mesmerise a writer in full flow.
It's about where writing comes from, how it grows, and where it goes to die.
A girl comes into a cafe' when Hemingway is writing a story. She has "smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin"; the "sh" alliteration onomatopeically reminding us of water. The girl's hair is "black as a crow's wing", and this image is further reinforced by the description of her haircut.
He notices that she's waiting for someone, so he carries on writing, and thinks about putting her in his story. But it's the story that's in control of the writer, not the other way round. The following lines seem to say it all, and I never tire of reading them:
"I've seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil."
This mystery girl is imagination personified. She comes from water, which is life, and her hair is the colour of the crow, an omen of death. She appears out of nowhere, she seduces with her beauty, and she will soon disappear. When Hemingway finishes writing his story, and looks up, he won't find her in the cafe'. And he will feel an inexplicable sadness. Not because he has finished the story, but because imagination has fled.
"A girl came in the café and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair was black as a crow's wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek.
I looked at her and she disturbed me and made me very excited. I wished I could put her in the story, or anywhere, but she had placed herself so she could watch the street and the entry and I knew she was waiting for someone. So I went on writing.
The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. I ordered another rum St. James and I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink.
I've seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.
Then I went back to writing and I entered far into the story and was lost in it. I was writing it now and it was not writing itself and I did not look up nor know anything about the time nor think where I was nor order any more rum St. James. I was tired of rum St. James without thinking about it. Then the story was finished and I was very tired. I read the last paragraph and then I looked up and looked for the girl and she had gone. I hope she's gone with a good man, I thought. But I felt sad.
I closed up the story in the notebook and put it in my inside pocket and I asked the waiter for a dozen portugaises and a half-carafe of the dry white wine they had there. After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love, and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day."
Alchemy through Ink
In this canto from the Love-song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S.Eliot dazzles us with words, which morph into vivid images.
The fog is a dog.
The night is a solid space.
Everything is a metaphor that carries meaning from one entity to another, and by so doing, transfigures both.
It's alchemy through ink.
"The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep."
from the Love-song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S.Eliot
A bored middle-aged schoolteacher forever disappointed by the uninspired essays his students churn out, discovers eloquence in the writings of one of his pupils. Its author is a quiet and curious youth, whose compelling words will become the academic’s justification of a lifetime of teaching. This is In the House - Dans la maison (2012), a film directed by Francois Ozon, and written by him, based on a play by Juan Mayorga.
The schoolmaster will become increasingly consumed by his pupil and the latter's compositions. In a bizarre turn of events, he will go to any lengths to create and defend situations in order to hand his student a decent story. Ultimately, this will turn the academic's world upside down and will take its toll on his work, his relationships, and his mental health.
In the following chapter, "Our Studies", from The Notebook by Agota Kristof, translated by Alan Sheridan, the author has the twins, the narrators, describe how they study and how they write. And the description of their writing method is a vivid insight into how the author herself writes.
The twins' first rule of writing is that "the composition must be true" that is, it must be devoid of subjective considerations, hearsay, and hypotheses. Only the description of things, people, and places are true, while the description of feelings cannot be trusted, and there is no space for it in their prose. According to them, "Words that define feelings are very vague. It is better to avoid using them and stick to the description of objects, human beings, and oneself, that is to say, to the faithful description of facts."
Interestingly, the absence of any description of feelings in Kristof's writing actually functions to elicit all manner of sentiments from us, her readers. It's as if the author, through her narrators, is telling us: "This is how it is. This is where it happened. These are the people involved. This is what they did. This is how they did it. You be the judge. You decide."
This technique is powerful because it throws our belief system into question. We are not so sure about what is right and wrong, when this responsibility is placed almost entirely on our shoulders. After all, we're just readers wishing to be entertained. But Kristof doesn't let us off the hook, and she takes us by the throat through a moral gray land where things are neither all black nor all white. And this disorients us.
Reading The Notebook is not a comfortable experience, but it is a worthwhile one exactly because of it. It forces us, the readers, to exit our comfort zone and to suspend judgement. And in so doing, we become more human, by becoming more aware of our own moral shortcomings, of the limits of the tiny world from which we observe (and judge) others.
Ultimately, reading Kristof is a lesson in humility. And that's why it's sometimes painful but always rewarding.
For our studies, we have Father's dictionary and the Bible we found here at Grandmother's, in the attic.
We have lessons in spelling, composition, reading, mental arithmetic, mathematics, and memorization.
We use the dictionary for spelling, to obtain explanations, but also to learn new words, synonyms and antonyms.
We use the Bible for reading aloud, dictation, and memorization. We are thus learning whole pages of the Bible by heart.
This is how a composition lesson proceeds:
We are sitting at the kitchen table with our sheets of graph paper, our pencils, and the notebook. We are alone.
One of us says:
"The title of your composition is: 'Arrival at Grandmother's.' "
The other says:
"The title of your composition is: 'Our Chores.' "
We start writing. We have two hours to deal with the subject and two sheets of paper at our disposal.
At the end of two hours we exchange our sheets of paper. Each of us corrects the other's spelling mistakes with the help of the dictionary and writes at the bottom of the page: "Good" or "Not good." If it's "Not good," we throw the composition in the fire and try to deal with the same subject in the next lesson. If it's "Good," we can copy the composition into the notebook.
To decide whether it's "Good" or "Not good," we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.
For example, it is forbidden to write, "Grandmother is like a witch"; but we are allowed to write, "People call Grandmother the Witch."
It is forbidden to write, "The Little Town is beautiful," because the Little Town may be beautiful to us and ugly to someone else.
Similarly, if we write, "The orderly is nice," this isn't a truth, because the orderly may be capable of malicious acts that we know nothing about. So we would simply write, "The orderly has given us some blankets."
We would write, "We eat a lot of walnuts," and not "We love walnuts," because the word "love" is not a reliable word, it lacks precision and objectivity. "To love walnuts" and "to love Mother" don't mean the same thing. The first expression designates a pleasant taste in the mouth, the second a feeling.
Words that define feelings are very vague. It is better to avoid using them and stick to the description of objects, human beings, and oneself, that is to say, to the faithful description of facts."
Modify to Save Words not to Embellish
The opening lines of The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway are deceptively simple. Hemingway is famous for using few adjectives and adverbs, so when he does employ them, it's usually for good reasons.
The boy's parents tell the boy that the old man is "definitely and finally" unlucky. In other words, they are implying that there is no doubt that he is unlucky and that his bad luck is irreversible. I needed fifteen words to explain that. Hemingway needs three. Two adverbs and a conjunction.
The old man's skiff is "empty" because there are no fish. The sail is "patched with flour sacks" because there is no money for a new one. The sail is "furled" because the day is over. And it looks like the flag of "permanent defeat" because no wind blows in it. In all four cases, the adjective modifies the noun by bringing our attention to what is missing. The adjectives give us an immediate visual cue or emotional dimension, which would otherwise need a lengthy description.
Budding writers are often told to eliminate adjectives and adverbs to achieve a tight and vivid prose. However, skilled writers are able to employ them exactly for that purpose. And there are few writers who do this better than Hemingway. He's in a league of his own.
"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat."
The Writer's Trinity
In this brief excerpt, Graham Greene describes the writing method that allowed him to produce a novel a year. It reveals a very disciplined individual who has learned to pace himself. One who writes five hundred words a day and stops mid-sentence, only to pick up the next day from precisely where he left off the day before.
In the evening, he reads the work written in the morning. He knows his mind will work in the background during sleep. He calls on his unconscious to counsel him because "...in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper." He does not appear to be afflicted by writer's block in any way since, as he says, "We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them."
It's the Writer's Trinity: talent, method, and discipline.
"Over twenty years I have probably averaged five hundred words a day for five days a week. I can produce a novel in a year, and that allows time for revision and the correction of the typescript. I have always been very methodical, and when my quota of work is done I break off, even in the middle of a scene. Every now and then during the morning’s work I count what I have done and mark off the hundreds on my manuscript. No printer need make a careful cast-off of my work, for there on the front page is marked the figure — 83,764. When I was young not even a love affair would alter my schedule. A love affair had to begin after lunch, and however late I might be in getting to bed — as long as I slept in my own bed — I would read the morning’s work over and sleep on it. … So much of a novelist’s writing, as I have said, takes place in the unconscious; in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper. We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them."