As Harvard professor Steven Pinker explained when I spoke to him, if we’re going to learn the rules of good writing, it’s probably going to be passively from the books we devour:
“I don’t think you could become a good writer unless you spend a lot of time immersed in text allowing you to soak up thousands of idioms and constructions and figures of speech and interesting words, to develop a sense of writing at its best. Becoming a writer requires savoring and reverse-engineering examples of good prose, giving you something to aspire to and allowing you to become sensitive to the hundreds of things that go into a good sentence that couldn’t possibly be spelled out one by one.”
And then, as William Zinsser explains, you can take it to the next level. Study the books you love and imitate them.
Whatever writing ability I have almost certainly comes from the fact that I’ve read a lot. As the above extract says, knowing how to write mainly comes from reading a lot of very good writing. My three favourite authors would be Raymond Chandler, P.G. Wodehouse, and Dashiell Hammett. Why I would choose them is because of their style of writing: the way they weave the English language into prose and dialogue is one of the finest art forms I can think of. I’m not much into the visual arts: paintings, sculptures, and suchlike, but a well-written passage from the pen of one of the aforementioned three authors is as emotive and beautiful as anything. Consider this, from Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely:
He wore a brown suit of which the coat was too small for his shoulders and his trousers were probably a little tight under the armpits. His hat was at least two sizes too small and had been perspired in freely by somebody it fitted better than it fitted him. He wore it about where a house wears a wind vane. His collar had the snug fit of a horsecollar and was of about the same shade of dirty brown. A tie dangled outside his buttoned jacket, a black tie which had been tied with a pair of pliers in a knot the size of a pea.
I first read that in my late teens and his dry, cynical humour resonated with me then and has never stopped. Without a doubt, reading passages like this has not only influenced how I write, but also inspired me to write and given me the ability to do so. If I could write to a tenth of the quality of Chandler, Wodehouse, or Hammett I’d be happy.
When I was in my sixth form and applying for university places, I had to write a Personal Statement on my UCAS form, which was basically a short essay detailing my achievements and how great I was. One of my teachers, the physics teacher who I mention here, told us there is one sure-fire way to know if what you’ve written is any good: stand in the school quadrant and read it out at the top of your voice. You’ll soon know which bits make you cringe. That man gave me many, many good pieces of advice at a time when I needed it, and this was one of his best. When I’m writing, I re-read the passage I’ve just written and think “If I read this out in front of all my colleagues now, would I cringe with embarrassment? Or if it should somehow be leaked, would I care or would I be quite proud?”
Even yesterday I found myself deleting sentences which I felt sounded too earnest, or two elaborate: that advice, which pops up everywhere, not to “overwrite” is crucial to bear in mind. The three greats I mentioned didn’t overwrite, they kept it extraordinarily simple given how poetic the final output was.
A month or two back somebody suggested I give the Welsh author Ken Follett a try, and so I downloaded his 1999 historical novel The Pillars of the Earth. It took me only a few chapters to become tired of the weak prose: I’m even spotting repeated words in sentences, something even mere bloggers try (with varying degrees of success) to avoid. It reads as though it was written by somebody in high-school for an audience of particularly dim adults. But it became a best-seller. The reason why is because the prose is extremely “accessible” and you can get through it without too much thought, and the story itself is mining that rich seam of medieval knights and religious orders engaged in nefarious plots and treachery which has made Game of Thrones so popular. The characters are so cliched they might as well be cartoons, and the dialogue cringe-inducing. I have no wish to read this stuff, let alone write it. I fully congratulate Ken Follett and others like him – Dan Brown, for example – for being able to churn this stuff out and make themselves millions in the process, but it does raise one question. Do these guys write like that on purpose, knowing it will sell well, and as such are true geniuses? Or do they write this crap because that’s all they know and by pure, blind luck find that it sells? I’d love to find out.
Anyway, I reckon I can do better than that, in terms of quality of writing if not sales. Only one way to find out. I’d better get cracking.