This article is the continuation of the article I already published about the effect of your words on the readers.
The Reader’s Effect on the Writer:
In this matter of writing there is a two-way traffic. As soon as a writer becomes aware of his reader, he begins to suit his style to that reader.
One of the commonest criticisms in articles and book reviews is of this kind:
‘The unsettling thing about Mr. Gibson’s book is the feeling it gives one that he has not made up his mind whom he is writing for. At one point one has the feeling that he is writing for the expert; at the next that he is writing for the comparatively ignorant layman who is anxious to learn. The result is two half-books not one whole one. If it is a whole one, it is one with a split-personality.’
Just as people speak with slightly different accents and tones when they are speaking to different people, so when they are writing, they adopt somewhat different styles.
Here are a few passages of English prose. Read them. Try to deduce in each case the kind of reader the writer had in mind. Add appropriate comments. Compare your answers with those given at the bottom of this article.
It was lovely looking out from the monastery, into the dimness of the plain below, and the great loose roses of the monastery gardens so brilliant and spreading themselves out — then inside, the cloisters so white and silent. We picnicked on the north coast high above the sea, mountainous and the bluest, bluest sea I ever saw — not hard like peacocks and jewels, but soft like the blue feathers of the lit — really very lovely — and no people — olives and a few goats — and the big blueness shimmering to far off, north — lovely.
Don’t worry about your style. Style is like happiness; you will never catch it by chasing it. If you want to be happy, the thing to do is to get on with whatever has to be done, to the best of your ability, whether it is going to a party or bathing the baby. Likewise with style. Forget about style as such. Say what has to be said as clearly as you can. . . . If people quickly see your meaning and share your feeling about it, you can assume your style is good; if they talk about your style, you can be sure it is bad.
One of the simplest cartoons ever drawn consisted of a closed door on which was printed On the door-knob hung a card announcing in immature writing: GONE TO DIN-DIN.
Tootsie-wootsie, bow-wow, puff-puff, wee- wee, din-din — that sort of language is called ‘baby-talk’. But shouldn’t it rather be called ‘mummy-talk’? Baby talk is as natural to mothers as cooing and gurgling is to babies. And it is a lot more creative in its effects than most of the talk that goes on between adults.
The little coral island of Antigua floats in the Caribbean like a biscuit in wine. There’s plenty of sun and hard white beach and shady flowering trees. A nice place to be lazy in. Even Nelson liked to take time off here.
Emotion is now generally thought of as an awareness, a distinctive conscious process that is quite separate from intellectual processes. This notion has led to a good deal of confusion, for it has gradually become clear that no such distinct kind of awareness exists.
Deposits on the surface of out-door electrical insulators can seriously weaken their insulation strength. The very large number of insulator breakdowns on the ‘grid’ electricity distribution system during the recent bad winter induced the Central Electricity Generating Board to take a look at methods of washing the insulators while the lines still carried power.
In the lovely Northamptonshire village of Litchborough, within easy reach of the motorway MI and Sulgrave Manor, the ancestral home of George Washington, briar pipes of the finest quality are still individually made by skilled craftsmen….
The British have been a nation of pipe smokers since Sir Walter Raleigh first brought tobacco to this country. Yet it was not until 1879 that a Frenchman came to England to make the first briar pipe.
The car was a dark blue seven-passenger sedan, a Packard of the latest model, custom- built. It was the kind of car you wear your rope pearls in. It was parked by a fire-hydrant and a dark foreign-looking chauffeur with a face of carved wood was behind the wheel. The interior was upholstered in quilted grey chenille. The Indian put me in the back. Sitting there alone, I felt like a high-class corpse, laid out by an under taker with a lot of good taste.
It is quite possible that before a year is out (perhaps before a week is out) a bomb will obliterate the lot of us. Would you like to find yourself in front of St. Peter having, a moment ago, been slovenly enough to sing B flat when the right note was B natural, or having done 55 minutes work when you were paid for an hour? As Bishop Ken put it:
‘Redeem thy mis-spent time that’s past And live this day as if thy last.’
‘Ah,’ you may say, ‘if we live at that intensity we shall all get ulcers.’ So be it. Let us all go to Heaven with ulcers.
The ghost that got into our house on the night of November 17, 1915, raised such a hullabaloo of misunderstandings that I am sorry I didn’t just let it keep on walking, and go to bed. Its advent caused my mother to throw a shoe through a window of the house next door and ended up with my grandfather shooting a patrol man. I am sorry, therefore, as I have said, that I ever paid attention to the footsteps.
Compare your answers:
1. An extract from a personal letter. The writer was D. H. Lawrence. It is absolutely spontaneous writing; quite obvious that Lawrence is enjoying the act of communication. He throws the words down hurriedly on the page, not caring two hoots about grammar or punctuation. Images flood into his mind ‘peacocks’, ‘jewels’ and on to the page the words go. Note the word ‘loose’. Not the word you’d ordinarily apply to roses, but it’s right. It’s one of the marks of writing genius that ordinary words appear now and then in unexpected places with a completely new force. ‘Appear’ is the right word here; in the kind of writing I am thinking about, they are not sought out.
2. From a school book. Written to be read by pupils of 15 upwards. The sentences short, simple and direct. No argument, just plain advice. :‘Likewise with style’ is, I think, put in there like a sentence, although it is not a complete sentence just to show the readers that they should not bother too much about sentences and all that.
3. From a pamphlet written for parents — particularly mothers. The writer is trying to be lively as well as informative. His instructions were to make the facts about children learning to speak and read as interesting as possible. I know this quite definitely because I was the person so instructed.
4. Written to order by an advertising copy writer. He is determined to attract attention and was in fact helped by a colour photograph taken from the air in which the island did, if you used your imagination, look like a biscuit floating in something.
5. These two sentences come from an academic text-book on the psychology of learning. If you think the meaning would be clearer t& you if something of the context were supplied, you may be right. I can only say that things did not work out like that with me. ‘Generally’ does not, of course, mean ‘generally’. At the very most it means ‘among psychologists’; it is more likely
to mean ‘those psychologists who agree with me’. I hope you will never be guilty of writing a sentence like the second one. It’s an excellent example of academic confusion. Academic writing usually confuses non-specialists by the sheer weight of its technical or pseudo-technical terms. Here we have simple words and simple ideas. It is a puzzling sentence nevertheless. Did you Solve it? If you didn’t, blame the writer. He used the same tense for two different times and should have written.
‘This notion led to a good deal of confusion, but now it has become clear that no such distinct kind of awareness exists.’
The actual facts behind the words, however, come out more clearly, I think, in the following version:
‘This notion led to a good deal of confusion, but I am not confused by it because I now see that no such distinct kind of awareness exists. Those who s4 my views are not confused by it, but there may still be some who have not yet seen the light.’
My point is that ‘it has now become clear’ is very often a writer’s way of implying two things at once: 1. that there was a certain truth that until then had not been revealed; 2. that this truth has now been revealed, or discovered, by him, and is accepted ‘generally’. So you see there
is not much difference between ‘it has now become clear’ and ‘is now generally accepted’. The writer of these sentences is Professor D. 0. Hebb, a psychologist with a great reputation in the field of learning theory.
6. From a straight-forward report in the New Scientist. There is no attempt to assume a false authority in order to make statements more persuasive. The reporter does not dress his facts up like the advertising man nor does he feel any temptation to use language that suggests he has a cloud of witnesses on his side, as Hebb’s language does.
7. You were possibly right about this one, but how right? If you said this was a piece of advertising copy, you were only half right—unless you added that it was not advertising what you might think. It is not advertising a particular make of briar pipe, but a particular brand of petrol — Shell. It is from a Shell advertisement. Facts about the countryside add interest to motor trips; the Shell people gain goodwill by supplying such facts to motorists.
8. From a thriller by Raymond Chandler. You will have been immediately aware that the setting is American — ‘Packard’, ‘custom-built’. The writer is determined to keep hold of the reader’s attention not only by means of the action of the story but by giving every paragraph, if not every sentence, some kind of verbal punch. It is a bit odd that though most of his readers are men he makes that reference to ‘rope pearls’, but that idea of a man momentary imagining him self a woman brings an undercurrent of sex into the reading of this. And ‘chenille’? Would you recognize a piece of chenille if you saw it? Most men wouldn’t but it’s enough that the word should sound that the material is expensive; here also is the suggestion that the writer really knows all these things. There is also the manipulation of race-fear — ‘a dark foreign-looking chauffeur with a face of carved wood’. Note also the ‘tough’ approach to the idea of death in the last sentence. There is little difference between writing of this sort and advertising copy. Chandleris, however, selling a story not a brand of petrol or a holiday resort.
9. Manufactured talk — written to be spoken. It was actually spoken at a university graduation ceremony. I do not mean by ‘manufactured’ that it is insincere or that it does not come off, but that the writer is writing something that is going to have to sound like speaking. It’s a good discipline to try this sometimes. Sterne, the author of Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey said he saw no difference between a good style of writing and good conversation. If you can write a short speech that sounds as though you were really speaking off the cuff, you have come a long way towards the mastery of writing technique.
10. From James Thurber. You knew it was American because of ‘patrolman’. Writing to arouse interest in a very different way from Chandler’s. Chandler’s is full of undercurrents; this is as simple a statement as possible of certain events. It’s the putting together of some unusual events that arouses the interest. There is an interesting contrast between the previous passage and this one. No. 9 was writing that was meant to be spoken; this writing that is meant to be read silently while at the same time it is creating the illusion of speech. It is as though you are being told the story by the author in person.