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The Unpatented Secret to Writing Clearly and Well

13 Sep

Many years ago, I was watching something Brit on PBS. I remember one line in particular: “Drive quickly. I don’t care about the speed limit.” It struck me as a model of simplicity and clarity and strength. But it could have been any sentence in just about any show. It made me realize that what made British actors always sound so smart, and so credible was that their scripts used simple words. I began to observe British pols, as found that they did the same thing. Simple words for everything. They even had the good sense to do it when they were lying their black hearts out.

By contrast, when American political and military pols lie, they often tend to take refuge in thickets of polysyllables (see the public records of the Nixon administration for examples), on the theory that it makes them sound smarter and therefore more credible: “Protective reaction strike.” only three words long, but two of them are latinate, and only one is from old English. And it’s a lie. ┬áIt means “Attacking first.”

The odd thing about English is that it’s really two languages, Anglo-Saxon and Norman French. After 1066 and all that, when the Normans managed to impose themselves on the ancient kingdom of the English, the two peoples hated each other, but they still had to get things done. They developed a pidgin (the word means “business”) language to do them in. From that time to this, there are two streams of words in our language, an upper-crust latiny sort of stream and a working class Germanic stream of strong nouns and muscular verbs. They are both wonderful tools for a writer. But the second stream is the short road to what you want to say nearly every time.

I don’t suggest that we should dumb down our writing. Word choice, sentence structure, the rhythm of our sentences, can convey any mood or nuance we want, something our poets have been proving for centuries. In fact, it seems to me that bad writing is more a result of flat sentences than of poor word choices. Think about the bad books you’ve read. Didn’t every sentence seem to be like every other sentence?

So, take your cue from the hard-handed old pig farmers who gave us so much. Keeps your words simple, as much as you can. Then use them to soar.




Literary Advice From John Paul Jones

1 Jul

There are plenty of books of literary advice out there. Few of them have anything to say that the others don’t. But I think the essence of them was spoken by a guy who wasn’t a writer at all. He was a sea captain, the greatest naval hero of the American Revolution. And, since it’s 4th of July weekend, I’m going to start this writers’/readers’/publishers’ blog off with what he said. he said,

“No captain can go too far wrong who places his ship alongside that of his enemy.”

A statement which he proved one dark night in 1777 when he was sailing back to America having carried the news of the victory at Saratoga to the French court who, on hearing it, decided to go public with their support for our war. To sweeten the deal — I guess — they gave Jones a worn-out old warship which Jones renamed Bonhomme Richard (Poor Richard). Not much of a craft, but bigger than anything else we had. Jones recruited about 300 marines from some Irishmen hanging around the docks, and headed home.

On the way, he encountered the Serapis, the newest frigate in the Royal Navy. They lashed togetehr and started pounding each other to splinters.

Jones soon found that he had only three cannons that worked without blowing up. Bonhomme Richard was springing a new leak every time Serapis fired a broadside, and the some of the pumps were failing. Bonhomme Richard was sinking.

But Jones’s marines were sweeping the Serapis’s decks and rigging with their musket fire, and Jones wasn’t in a mood to quit. When the American flag fell, cut from its staff by British fire, the Serapis’s captain asked,

“Do you surrender, Sir? Do you strike your colours?”

To which Jones replied something like “No, sir. I have not yet begun to fight.”

Which would have gone down as famous last words except for one thing: Serapis surrendered not long thereafter. About midnight, Jones accepted their surrender, and then transferred everybody on Bonhomme Richard to the Serapis and let his own ship sink. It’s the only time in history that the winner of a sea battle sailed home on the loser.

Which has what to do with writing, exactly? Just this: every new writer is in Jones’s position. Ever time you send out a manuscript to an agent or editor, you’re engaging Serapis. The odds are against you, and they always will be. But every published author you ever read was in exactly that position once. And every time you go through the gut-tightening experience of trying yet again to get read, you have a chance of sailing home on her deck.

Happy 4th.