Friends often ask me about writing and here are four things I want to share.
To write well, you must write. Practice often. When we think of improving our reading skills, we read. Friends often share how well their children read. This makes sense because their children read all the time. But do they write? Not nearly as often. Write every day: an essay, directions, report, summary, poem, letter, outline, notes. Spend more time on technical writing than creative. Fewer than one percent of people will ever make a living writing fiction. But every one of us will write reports, summaries, evaluations, letters, and essays in school and for our jobs. Writing is thinking on paper. It forces you to analyze and organize your thoughts. Don’t worry what it looks like and how it sounds, just get it down. The more you do it, the better you’ll get.
Study English and its rules. I’m not a grammarian, but it’s important to know something about the rules if you wish to play the game. Or as Ernest Hemingway wrote in his letters, “The game of golf would lose a good deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green. You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements.”
It’s not fashionable to teach English, AKA grammar, today. My children did not know the eight parts of speech or the four types of sentences when we began our English home study last year. They used them, of course, but they did not understand them. To play sports, you have to know the rules. Our language is the same and infinitely more important. In the Information Age, people will know us through our writing. I just read an excellent 50 pages on Grammar in the Penguin Writer’s Manual, The Essential Guide to Writing Well. That’s just 50 pages of rules. It is the Queen’s English and a tad different and there’s a lot there, I won’t deny it. It’s tantamount to saying the rules of chess are contained in two pages, yet it takes a lifetime to learn. So it goes with English. Why would we expect our math skills to improve if we don’t practice? Or our piano performance? But we want our English to simply improve. Read, read, read, yes. “But write, you must,” says Yoda.
Learn to write a paragraph well. This is the building block of all writing. Every paragraph should have two things, unity and coherence. A well- ordered paragraph usually includes a topic sentence. For budding writers, this is often the first sentence. Every sentence must develop and support this idea. Good writing includes varied sentence length, type, and order. For example, most sentences are declarative or statements. Ask a question. Change from normal to inverted or mixed word order and by all means, change the length. Consecutive, long statements bore readers. An excellent text will model good and poor paragraphs. I don’t think schools use this much anymore, sadly.
Orwell’s Six Rules for Better Writing Learn and practice.
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
George Orwell shared these in his original 1946 essay, “On Politics and the English Language.” I encourage any serious writer to take the time to read it. Its commentary on the English language is as ominous as his keystone novel, Ninety Eighty-Four. This is a quote from the opening of the essay.
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 toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. George Orwell
Here’s a link to the essay in its entirety.
NOTE: The eight parts of speech are noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, conjunction, preposition, and interjection. The four types of sentences are declarative, interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory.
March 27, 2014