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Lessons on writing

From article on good writing:

… But one of the things good writing does is to fight a rear-guard action against this automatic absorption of error. For example, a competent writer would look twice at rear-guard action to make sure that he means to evoke a losing battle and check automatic absorption to make sure that it falls within the range of phenomena against which a battle might conceivably be fought. He had better also know that phenomena should not be used in the singular, although that knowledge, too, is becoming rare. Competent writers always examine what they have put down. Better-than-competent writers—good writers—examine their effects before they put them down: They think that way all the time. Bad writers never examine anything. Their inattentiveness to the detail of their prose is part and parcel of their inattentiveness to the detail of the outside world.

There is evidence, however, that writers can read a great deal, among all the best exemplars, and still not take in the power to discriminate on critical points of grammar, derivation, usage, punctuation, and consistency of metaphor. Prescriptive initial teaching probably helps, but the capacity for such an alertness may be more in the nature of an inborn propensity than a possible acquisition.

The good prose-writer’s standards, however, should include the realization that he is not writing a poem. Henry James was not being entirely absurd when he complained that Flaubert was unable to leave his language alone. It is possible to be an admirer of Nabokov while still finding his alertness to cliché overactive, so that passages occur in which we can hardly see for the clarity: and with James Joyce it is more than possible. Somewhere between Tolstoy, who was so indifferent to style that he did not mind repeating a word, and Turgenev, who would sooner have died than do so, there is an area where the writer can be economically precise without diverting the reader’s whole attention to his precision. Lichtenberg would have included that area in his key concept of “the proper distance,” which he thought crucial to the exercise of reason. Rembrandt, in a reported statement Goethe was fond of, said that people should not shove their noses too close to his paintings: The paint was poisonous.

It is better to err on the side of too much scrupulosity than too little, but it remains a fact that good writers are occupied with more than language. The fact is awkward; and the most awkward part of it is that for metaphorical force to be attained in a given sentence, the metaphorical content of some of its words—which is a historic content provided by their etymology and the accumulated mutability of their traditional use—must be left dormant. Our apprehension of the Duchess of Gloster’s mighty line in Richard II, “Thou show’st the naked pathway to thy life,” would be blunted, rather than sharpened, if we concerned ourselves with the buried image of a naked person instead of with the overt image of an unprotected path, and our best signal for not so concerning ourselves is that Shakespeare didn’t, or he would have written the line in a different way. To make an idea come alive in a sentence, some of its words must be left for dead: The penalty for trying to bring them all alive is preciousness at best. If such preciousness is not firmly ruled out by the writer, there will be readers all too keen to supply it. In modern times, critics have earned a reputation for brilliance by pushing the concept of “close reading” to the point where they tease more meaning out than the writer can conceivably have wanted to put in; but it isn’t hard, it’s easy; and the mere fact that their busy activity makes them feel quite creative themselves should be enough to tell them they are making a mistake.

With the majority of bad writers the question never comes up. As Orwell points out in his indispensable essay “Politics and the English Language,” they write in prepared phrases, not in words, and the most they do with a prepared phrase is vary it to show that they know what it is. When Pope called genius an infinite capacity for taking pains, that was what he meant. The greatly gifted have almost everything by nature, but by bending themselves to the effort of acquirement, they turn a great gift into great work. Their initial arrogance is necessary and even definitive: Heinrich Mann was right to say that the self-confidence of young artists precedes their achievement and is bound to seem like conceit while it is still untried. But there is one grain of humility that they must get into their cockiness if they are ever to grow: They must accept that one of the secrets of creativity is an unrelenting self-criticism. “My dear friend,” said Voltaire to a young aspirant who had burdened him with an unpublished manuscript, “you may write as carelessly and badly as this when you have become famous. Until then, you must take some trouble.”

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