The Complete Plain Words (1954) is a classic book on writing by Sir Ernest Gowers, an accomplished civil servant, aimed at curing the British Civil Service of its habit of writing in officialese rather than in plain English. Though written for civil servants, it soon became a hit with the general public and has not been out of print since.
In it Gowers writes, “The secret to style is to have something to say and to say it as clearly as you can.” He then asks why it is that adults are so prone to write in a complicated rather than simple way, the way children do. To illustrate this, Gowers offers an example of clear writing from a ten-year-old that’s not only impressive for its clarity but also hilarious:
“Why do so many writers prefer complexity to simplicity? Officials are far from being the only offenders. It seems to be a morbid condition contracted in early manhood. Children show no signs of it. Here, for example, is the response of a child of ten to an invitation to write an essay on a bird and a beast:
In recent days a couple of friends asked me if I’d been keeping up with my blog, which brought to mind that indeed, since this unusually busy fall semester began, I’ve broken one of my 2015 resolutions: To post here at least once every two weeks. (My last post was over a month ago.) The good thing is that this pushed me to do this third and last post on Marilynne Robinson’s breathtakingly beautiful, and beautifully written, Gilead (Picador 2004). To re-cap, the book is written as a series of letters from a father who is soon to die to his young son, and in it he speaks of his father and grandfather who, like him, are preachers, and of the ties, and loves, and even sins, that bind these generations. Like the first two I shared, I love this excerpt for the way it captures beauty – the beauty that a man beholds in the woman he loves, the son he cherishes – and which he connects to God, its source, in a most appropriate expression of gratefulness and awe.
“I can tell you this, that if I’d married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother’s face. And if I never found you, my comfort would be in that hope, my lonely and singular hope, which could not exist in the whole of Creation except in my heart and in the heart of the Lord. That is just another way of saying I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world – your mother excepted, of course – and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face” (237).
This year I finally read Marilynne Robinson’s celebrated Gilead (Picador, 2004). This is a deeply beautiful novel, written as a series of letters from a dying father to his seven-year-old son. The setting is 1950s Iowa and the father is one in a long line of ministers, so themes revolving around faith and theology, sin and redemption, are prominent throughout the book. Robinson has been rightly praised for writing a book which, as the Washington Post put it, is “so serenely beautiful and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it.” It is this “touch of grace” that I was most impressed with: It is as if hundreds of pages in this book drip with beauty, with words capturing the quotidian glory of, say, the reflection of light in water as a baby is baptized, or the quiet courage of a woman (the narrator’s wife) whose uniquely trying life demanded of her a special courage. In this and I hope two more posts I’ll share excerpts that are representative of the profoundly beautiful and in many places intimate language that Robinson is known for. This first excerpt is the opening paragraph; I especially admire the rhythm of the dialogue in the first lines:
“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don’t laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up an put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsigned after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.” (3)
The late Christopher Hitchens was a devastatingly brilliant man of letters who wrote widely, and fiercely, on myriad topics, becoming more widely known in recent years as one of the “New Atheists,” along with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, for his no-holds-barred attacks on religion, even claiming that religion “poisons everything.”
I recently picked up his last book, Mortality (Twelve, 2012), which was published posthumously after his death in 2011. I did this not because I wanted to read his thoughts on death – there aren’t many for a virulent atheist like him – but because he was a great writer. Hitchens was also a gifted speaker and debater, always ready to employ his voice in debate and lively conversation. This writing advice he offers combines these two things, voice and writing, as he so impressively did throughout his life:
“To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: ‘How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?’ That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition out loud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better into. If something is worth hearing or listening to it’s very probably worth reading. So, above all: Find your own voice” (50).
So whether you want to become a professional writer or simply write better and more effective e-mails, have you ever thought much about developing your “voice”? And how often do you have others read your work, not to mention reading it yourself?
In his helpful book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (Little, Brown, 2008), Roy Peter Clark offers these “tricks” for writers, though they can be used by anyone who wants to improve their writing. Do you ever do any of these?
- Read to listen to the voice of the writer.
- Read the newspaper in search of underdeveloped story ideas.
- Read online to experience a variety of new storytelling forms.
- Read entire books when they compel you; but also taste bits of books.
- In choosing what to read, be directed less by the advice of others and more by your writing compass.
- Sample – for free – a wide selection of current magazines in bookstores that serve coffee.
- Read on topics outside your discipline, such as architecture, astronomy, economics, and photography.
- Read with a pen nearby. Write in the margins. Talk back to the author. Mark interesting passages. Ask questions of the text.
Today’s first sentences are from Dostoevsky, Orwell, and Elie Wiesel (in order):
“Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a landowner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place.” (The Brothers Karamazov)
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (1984)
“They called him Moishe the Beadle, as if his entire life he had never had a surname.” (Night)
Most writers say the first sentence is the most important line in a book. It sets the tone, invites the reader to keep reading or bores him away, and often makes the difference between publication and rejection. As my love of reading, and words in particular, grows, I’ve become more interested in learning what makes a great sentence. This reminds of me of an anecdote in a book about writing sentences where a young, aspiring author meets with a publisher whom he tells he cares about one thing and one thing only: he wants to write great sentences. Not just great books. Great sentences. I love the passion and particularity of that anecdote.
So in this spirit, I’m trying something new here. On Fridays, I’ll post a few first sentences that strike me as excellent – worth examining as much as enjoying. Hence, “First Sentence Friday.” (Now, if you can think of a more fun and catchy name that doesn’t connote the kind of sentences handed by cold, mean judges, do let me know.)
Today’s sentences come from three classic works by the authors above – from early 19th-century England, the American Roaring Twenties, and mid-century Latin America, from the hand of the recently deceased master, Gabriel García Márquez:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice,1813)
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” (The Great Gatsby, 1925)
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967)
Every couple of months or so I read a book to help me improve my writing, and now I’m reading Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (Little, Brown, 2008). I’ve only read about four or five books on the craft of writing, and this is my favorite (with William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well close behind; but for a truly fun read on writing “great sentences,” check out Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One). Clark’s guide is entertaining, full of common sense, and rich in practical tips that can take your writing to the next level.
I wanted to share this passage from his chapter showing how sentence length helps set the pace for the reader. He offers this delightfully brilliant example from the book 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost:
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals – sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
“So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music (91).”
NOTE: Did you notice how the first 9 sentences of this passage are all five-word sentences? That’s right. Read it again and enjoy.