TO DAVID M. CLAY
THE MAIN CONSIDERATIONS 1
THE MOTIVATION OF THE WRITER 3
THE NATURE OF THE READER 5
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN READER AND WRITER 5
THE FUSION OF MEDIUM, SUBJECT AND OCCASION 6
YOUR BACKGROUND FOR SUCCESSFUL WRITING 7
1. SOME GENERAL PROBLEMS
FINDING A TRUE SUBJECT 11
THE MAIN DIVISIONS OF A DISCOURSE 23
PROPORTIONING THE MAIN DIVISIONS 25
THE OUTLINE 26
2. THE KINDS OF DISCOURSE
THE MAIN INTENTION 29
THE FOUR KINDS OF DISCOURSE 30
MIXTURE OF THE KINDS OF DISCOURSE 30
OBJECTIVE AND SUBJECTIVE DISCOURSE 31
THE METHODS OF EXPOSITION 41
EXPOSITORY DESCRIPTION: TECHNICAL DESCRIPTION 42
THE RELATION BETWEEN THE TECHNICAL-SUGGESTIVE DISTINCTION
AND THE OBJECTIVE-SUBJECTIVE DISTINCTION 53
THE USES OF TECHNICAL AND SUGGESTIVE DESCRIPTION 55
EXPOSITORY NARRATION 57
COMPARISON AND CONTRAST 61
CLASSIFICATION AND DIVISION 67
EXTENDED DEFINITION 91
ANALYSIS: THE TWO KINDS 98
ANALYSIS AND STRUCTURE 99
ANALYSIS: RELATION AMONG PARTS 100
ANALYSIS AND EXPOSITORY DESCRIPTION 101
EXPOSITORY METHODS AND THEIR USES 119
THE APPEAL OF ARGUMENT 125
ARGUMENT AND CONFLICT 125
ARGUMENT AND THE UNDERSTANDING 127
WHAT ARGUMENT IS ABOUT 128
THE PROPOSITION: TWO KINDS 131
THE STATEMENT OF THE PROPOSITION 131
HISTORY OF THE QUESTION 134
PROPOSITIONS OF FACT 146
KINDS OF EVIDENCE: FACT AND OPINION 148
INDUCTION: GENERALIZATION 155
FALLACIES AND REFUTATION 170
THE IMPLIED SYLLOGISM 170
EXTENDED ARGUMENT: THE BRIEF 172
ORDER OF THE BRIEF AND ORDER OF THE ARGUMENT 183
RELATION OF SUGGESTIVE DESCRIPTION TO OTHER KINDS
OF DISCOURSE 195
THE DOMINANT IMPRESSION 200
PATTERN AND TEXTURE IN DESCRIPTION 200
TEXTURE: SELECTION IN DESCRIPTION 211
DESCRIPTION OF FEELINGS AND STATES OF MIND 220
FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE IN THE DESCRIPTION OF FEELINGS
AND STATES OF MIND 223
CHOICE OF WORDS IN THE TEXTURE OF DESCRIPTION 226
NARRATIVE AND NARRATION 240
NARRATION AND THE OTHER KINDS OF DISCOURSE 242
PATTERN IN NARRATION 250
EXAMPLES OF NARRATIVE PATTERN 255
TEXTURE AND SELECTION 264
POINT OF VIEW 267
7. THE PARAGRAPH
THE PARAGRAPH AS A CONVENIENCE TO THE READER 290
THE PARAGRAPH AS A UNIT OF THOUGHT 291
THE STRUCTURE OF THE PARAGRAPH 292
SOME TYPICAL STRUCTURAL PRINCIPLES 294
LINKING PARAGRAPHS TOGETHER 299
USE OF THE PARAGRAPH TO INDICATE DIALOGUE 302
8. THE SENTENCE
RHETORIC AND GRAMMAR 304
THE FIXED WORD ORDER OF THE NORMAL SENTENCE 307
POSITION OF THE MODIFIERS 311
GENERAL PRINCIPLES OF SENTENCE STRUCTURE 318
SENTENCE LENGTH AND SENTENCE VARIATION 323
GENERAL DEFINITION OF STYLE 329
THREE ASPECTS OF LITERARY STYLE 330
STYLE AS AN INTERPLAY OF ELEMENTS 331
THE PLAN OF THE FOLLOWING CHAPTERS ON STYLE 332
DENOTATION AND CONNOTATION 335
LANGUAGE GROWTH BY EXTENSION OF MEANING 342
THE COMPANY A WORD KEEPS: COLLOQUIAL, INFORMAL,
AND FORMAL 348
HOW CONNOTATIONS CONTROL MEANINGS 349
WORN-OUT WORDS AND CLICHES 353
METAPHOR DEFINED 361
IMPORTANCE OF METAPHOR IN EVERYDAY LANGUAGE 362
THE FUNCTION OF METAPHOR 371
METAPHOR AS ESSENTIAL STATEMENT 374
WHAT MAKES A "GOOD" METAPHOR? 378
METAPHOR AND SYMBOL 385
METAPHOR AND THE CREATIVE IMAGINATION 386
12. SITUATION AND TONE
TONE AS THE EXPRESSION OF ATTITUDE 390
THE IMPORTANCE OF TONE 391
WHAT DETERMINES TONE? 392
TONE AS A QUALIFICATION OF MEANING 397
SOME PRACTICAL DON'TS 401
SOME PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS 402
TONE: FAMILIAR AND FORMAL 411
COMPLEXITY OF TONE: WHEN, AND WHY, IT IS NECESSARY 416
13. THE FINAL INTEGRATION
RHYTHM AS A DEVICE OF EXPRESSION 428
STYLE AS HARMONIOUS INTEGRATION 432
THE INSEPARABILITY OF FORM AND CONTENT 435
STYLE AS AN EXPRESSION OF PERSONALITY 438
STYLE CULTIVATED BY READING 455
A MORE CONCRETE SUMMARY 459
14. READING: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO A WRITER? 461
Appendix 1. CAUSAL ANALYSIS 475
Appendix 2. THE SYLLOGISM 481
Appendix 3. THE OUTLINE, SUMMARY, AND PRECIS; NOTES;
RESEARCH PAPER; AND BOOK REPORT 486
Fundamentals of Good Writing
THERE is no easy way to learn to write. There is no certain formula, no short cut, no bag of tricks. It is not a matter of memorizing rules or of acquiring a few skills. To write well is not easy for the simple reason that to write well you must think straight. And thinking straight is never easy.
Straight thinking is the basis of all good writing. It does not matter whether you are planning to write fiction, poetry, news reports, magazine articles, essays, or sermons. What is common to all kinds of good writing is more important than what distinguishes one kind from another. This is a fundamental point, and this book is an attempt to deal with the fundamentals of writing.
THE MAIN CONSIDERATIONS
What is it that we must think straight about if we are to write well? Unfortunately there is no simple answer to this. A writer, as Robert Louis Stevenson says in his "Essay on Style," is like a juggler who must keep several balls in the air at once.
What are the several balls? What are the considerations that a writer must simultaneously think straight about? This book is an attempt to answer that question; but even when this book is finished the answer will not be a complete one. For the present, however, we may try to reduce the considerations to three general types. We may define them in reference to various aspects of the act of writing:
- The medium
- The subject
- The occasion
These terms, as we are using them, require some explanation.
A writer writes in a language, the substance, as it were, through which he exerts his force, the medium through which he communicates his ideas and feelings. This language operates in terms of certain principles and usages which a writer must observe if he is to exercise his full force or even, in some instances, to be understood at all. For example, grammar is an aspect of the medium itself. Rhythm is another aspect, and it may exercise a very powerful effect on the reader, even if he is not aware of it. Another aspect is diction the qualities of the individual words even beyond their bare dictionary definitions.
These topics, and others related to them, will be discussed in the course of this book, but for the present it is important only that we understand them as representing aspects of the medium, of language itself.
A writer writes about something. The something may be his own feelings, his love or his hate, or again it may be the theory of aerodynamics. But in either instance he has a subject and one that can be distinguished from all other possible subjects.
The nature of the subject will, in some respects, dictate the nature of the treatment. For instance, if a writer is interested in explaining a process of some kind, the running of an experiment in physics or the building of a log cabin, he will have to organize his material with some reference to the chronological order of the process. If he is trying to explain why he loves or hates someone, he will probably be concerned with the analysis of traits of character which have no necessary reference to chronology; therefore, his ordering of the material may well be in terms of degrees of importance and not in terms of time sequence.
Furthermore, the subject may dictate differences in diction. For instance, if the writer is trying to explain the process of an experiment in physics, his diction will be dry and technical, clear and factual; but if he is trying to define the grief experienced at the Heath of a friend, his diction may well be chosen to convey emotional effects.
Or the type of rhythm may vary according to the subject. The explanation of the experiment in physics will probably involve a rather flat rhythm, or at least an unobtrusive rhythm, but the attempt to define the grief at the death of the friend will probably depend to a considerable degree for its success on the rhythm employed, for the rhythm of language, even in prose, is of enormous importance in the communication of feelings.
Third, a writer writes out of a special situation, the occasion. We may say that this situation involves three basic elements: the motivation of the writer; the nature of the reader; and the relationship between writer and reader.
THE MOTIVATION OF THE WRITER
As for motivation, two general types may be distinguished: expression and communication. The writer may be primarily concerned to affirm his own feelings, to clarify his own mind, to define for himself his own sense of the world. When he writes from some such motivation, the urge to expression may be said to be dominant, and he has, on such an occasion, more in common with a man singing in the bath, with the child uttering the spontaneous cry of pain, or with the cat purring on the rug than he has with the judge handing down a decision from the bench, a teacher explaining a point of grammar from the platform, or a woman giving her daughter a recipe for pie. For the judge, the teacher, and the cook are not primarily concerned to express but to communicate something.
It may be said, however, that, in the ultimate sense, we never have a case of pure expression or pure communication. Even the cry of pain, which seems to be pure expression, may be said to presuppose a hearer; the hurt child redoubles its screams when it sees the mother approaching. And the poet who has written his poem' without a conscious thought of the reader, who has been concerned with the effort of getting his own feelings and ideas into form, hurries to the post office to mail his finished poem to a magazine through which it can reach a number of readers.
Conversely, even the most objective presentation of an idea or analysis of a situation may involve an expressive element. To take an extreme instance, we may say that a man may take pleasure in the accuracy and tidiness of his working out of a mathematical demonstration and feel that those qualities "express" him.
If it is true that we can never find an example of pure expression or of pure communication, if we have to regard expression and communication as, shall we say, the poles of the process of writing or speaking, we can still see that a great deal of variation in the relative proportions of communication and expression may exist.
ACCENT ON EXPRESSION
When the writer is primarily concerned with expression, he does not pay attention to his audience; if, under such circumstances, he thinks of the audience, it is only to assume that there will be people enough like himself to have an interest in his work. Yet even then, even when the writer is primarily concerned with expression, his private and individual intentions will have to be represented in a medium that has public and general standards. When the writer accepts language as his medium of expression, he also accepts the standards of communication.
ACCENT ON COMMUNICATION
When the writer is primarily concerned with communication rather than expression, he must, however, give special attention to the audience which he wishes to reach. He must consider the reader's interests and attitudes. Even if the writer wishes to give the reader a new interest, he must work in terms of the interests that already exist. When the writer does not, in some way, appeal to the already existing interests, the reader will not even bother to finish the book or article. Or if the writer wishes to make the reader change his attitude on some issue, he must work in terms of already existing attitudes. Unless the writer can discover that he and the reader have some attitudes in common, he can have no hope of convincing the reader about the matter on which they disagree.
THE NATURE OF THE READER
Just as the writer must concern himself with the reader's interests and attitudes, so he must concern himself with the reader's training and capacities. Every piece of writing is addressed to a more or less limited audience. It is perfectly logical that a piece of writing addressed to the specialist will not be understood by the layman. Articles in professional medical journals or law journals employ a language and a treatment largely incomprehensible to the ordinary reader. But the same thing holds true, though less obviously, in regard to all differences of education or capacity. Because of differences in education, the housewife is not likely to understand the article on international finance that may be perfectly clear to the banker or businessman who is her husband. Or one housewife, because of innate intelligence and sensitivity, can understand and enjoy a certain novel, while another woman in the same block, who has been educated at the same school, is merely confused and annoyed by the book.
It is true that there are types of writing which have a relatively broad appeal the novels of Dickens or the plays of Shakespeare but we must remember that even their appeal is only relatively broad, and that there are a great number of people who infinitely prefer the sports page of the daily paper or the financial section or the comic strip to Dickens or Shakespeare. And remembering this, the writer must concern himself with the level of education and intelligence of the special group which he wishes to address.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN READER AND WRITER
Just as the writer must consider his own motivation and the nature of his intended reader as components of the "occasion," so must he consider the relationship between himself and that reader. For instance, does he feel that he must speak down to his reader? If he does speak down, shall he take the tone of a man laying down the law from some position of authority like a judge on a bench or shall he take a tone of good-natured condescension? Or if he does not wish to speak down to his reader but regards the reader as on the same level with himself, shall he take a tone of friendly discussion or of serious, life-and-death argument?
The possible variations on this score are almost numberless, too, and the writer, if he is to be most effective, must take them into consideration. Is he, for instance, addressing a reader who is hostile and suspicious? If so, he must try to discover the approach which will mollify the hostility and allaythe suspicions. Or if his reader is assumed to be friendly but unserious, how shall he adapt himself to that situation? Is he writing to a student who is anxious to learn or to a casual reader who must be lured into the subject under discussion? Obviously the writer must, if he wishes to succeed with his reader, study the relationship existing between himself and his intended reader and adapt his tone to that aspect of the occasion.
The writer's relationship to his reader and to his subject may be summed up in the word tone (see Chapter 12). Just as the tone of voice indicates what the speaker's attitude is to his subject and his listener, so certain qualities of a piece of writing may indicate the attitude of the writer. Rhythms may be harsh and abrupt or lingering and subtle. Diction may be homely and direct or elaborate and suggestive. Sentence structure may be simple and downright or complicated by modifying and qualifying elements. Appeal maybe made through logic or through persuasion. These and many other factors are related to the writer's conception of the relation between himself and the reader.
THE FUSION OF MEDIUM, SUBJECT AND OCCASION
Under the headings of (1) medium, (2) subject, and (3) occasion, we have briefly discussed some of the basic considerations which the writer must keep in mind the balls which the juggler of Stevenson's essay must keep simultaneously in the air. The word simultaneously is important here, for though we have necessarily had to discuss our topics in order, we are not to assume that the order is one of either importance or of time sequence. Can one say that a knowledge of the subject under discussion is more or less important than a knowledge of the principles and usages of the language in which the subject is to be discussed? Or that a knowledge of the principles and usages of the language is more or less important than the sense of the nature of the occasion?
In the process of writing there is no one consideration to which the writer must give his attention first. His mind, in so far as he is a conscious craftsman, will play among the various considerations in the attempt to produce a piece of writing which will fulfill at the same time the demands of the medium, the subject, and the occasion. In this book we shall take up various topics individually, and you may find it helpful when you are revising a piece of writing to consider one question at a time, But the final piece of writing is always a fusion.
YOUR BACKGROUND FOR SUCCESSFUL WRITING
The foregoing remarks, with their emphasis on the complicated demands that a good piece of writing must fulfill, have perhaps made the business of writing seem enormously difficult. And it is true that the simplest piece of writing, when well done, is the fruit of a great deal of effort. But you are not, with this book, starting your career as a writer from scratch. You already have behind you many years of effort which can be made to apply on the writing you now do. You are already the beneficiary of a long training.
LANGUAGE AND EXPERIENCE
In the first place, you command a working knowledge of the English language. You began the process of learning that language when you were an infant, and the process has been a continuous one ever since. Books have helped you and they can be made to help you even more. They can broaden your vocabulary, and can give you a sense of the subtleties and shadings of words. But already books aside you are the master of very considerable resources in your native tongue.
A CAPACITY FOR STRAIGHT THINKING
In the second place, your experience has given you a great range of subjects, and a capacity for thinking logically about them. As for the subjects, almost any event of your day, any sport or craft which you understand, any skill or technique which you possess, any scene which you have witnessed, any book or article which you have read, any person whom you know all these are potential subjects. And any one of them can become interesting in so far as it is actually important to you and in so far as you can think straight about it. As for logical thinking, demands for the exercise of this faculty are made on you every day. You are constantly under the necessity of adjusting means to ends, of correcting errors in your calculations, of planning in terms of cause and effect, of estimating possibilities. To manage your simplest affairs you must have some capacity for straight thinking. When you come to the business of writing, you need merely to apply this capacity to the subject in hand to see what is important about it for your interests and purposes, to stick to your point, to make one sentence follow from the previous sentence and lead to the next, to make one paragraph follow from the previous paragraph and lead to the next, to make one idea follow from another, to state the relations between things in terms of time, space, or causality, to emphasize the important item and subordinate the unimportant, to proportion your discourse so that it will have an introduction, a development, and a conclusion. All of these problems of analysis and organization are problems which you may have to confront when you start any piece of writing, but you confront them with the aid of all the straight thinking that you have ever done.
A BROAD SOCIAL EXPERIENCE
In the third place, all of your experiences with other people in the past have provided a training that will help you adjust yourself to your intended reader. Your social experience, from your early childhood, has given you a training in tact, in grasping the truth about a human relationship, in adjusting your manner to the mood or prejudice of another person in order to convince, persuade, entertain, or instruct him. Every child is aware that, when he wants something from his mother or father, there is a right way to go about asking for it and a wrong way. And he knows that what is the right way for asking the mother may very well be the wrong way for asking the father. No doubt, the child never puts it to himself in these terms, but he acts on the truth behind these terms when he actually deals with mother or father. He develops early a sense of the occasion and a sensitivity to what we shall call problems of tone.
The discussion in this section comes to this : All of your experience in the past can be said, without too much wrenching of fact, to be a training for the writing which you wish to do. Your problem is, in part, to learn to use the resources which you already possess. For unless you learn to use those resources, you will not be able to acquire new resources.
Read more below.
It might take a minute for PDF to load. Download PDF here.