The following sentence appeared in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper:
When only one vehicle breaks down the hold-up it causes needs time and patience, which we are beginning to take for granted as we wait patiently to join the queue at Clifton to start the long wait, which is costing us pounds in valuable working hours lost every week and we still pay the same fare to arrive late for work for which there is no compensation for hours lost.
Were you at all conscious of the writer of that sentence while you were reading it? I think you must have been, but in what way? Something of his mind comes through. You know from the writing that he is not a very clear thinker and that he is not a practiced writer of English. You know something of his attitude towards the local transport authorities.
It seems to me impossible to read so badly constructed a sentence without reading into it something about the writer. The lack of skill in the writing draws attention to the person who wrote it. But this kind of thing is not confined to poor writing. There is always a chance whenever you set pen to paper that your reader will be forming an impression of you as well as paying attention to what you are trying to tell him. You are there too. The impression he has of you from your writing will influence his reaction to what you are trying to tell him.
You may be reporting what you regard as a set of indisputable facts, but y9ur reader will not so readily regard them as indisputable if they are set down incompetently. Why should he? If you can’t write English competently, is there any reason to suppose that you have been a competent observer or even a competent picker of somebody else’s brains?
You may have a very sound argument to sup port an opinion, but it won’t seem so sound if it is not competently expressed.
There are exceptions. That letter about the traffic jam is one of them, I feel, and the reason for my feeling is that here is a genuine person with a genuine complaint. The very incompetence of the writing is partly responsible for my having that feeling.
Such exceptions do not, however, affect the general rule. If you write incompetently, you will in general be regarded as having an untrained or incompetent mind — unless, of course, your writing is being read by someone equally untrained and incompetent.
Any sign of incompetence in your writing results in some loss of your reader’s confidence in you. That’s something you should bear in mind.
Glance back at the second extract given at the end of this article. The gist of it is that you should forget about style and say what you have to say as clearly as you can. As though it were possible for you to say what you have to say as clearly as you can without thinking about how you are going to say it!
There is a certain point in that contradictory statement all the same. It’s good advice for some one who has the idea that ‘style’ is something like — ornamentation, sticking fancy words on to penny-plain ideas, but it’s bad advice for anyone who hasn’t acquired that misconception about style and reads the advice as meaning that the first words that come into his head are the right words for the job.
I have known a fair number of writers, both amateur and professional but I have never yet met one who could sit down and put the right words on the paper at the first go.
Everyone of these men and women could write well; a few of them were well-established writers, but not one of them had finished learning to write. Nobody who sets his foot on this road ever reaches the end of it.
An author sends a manuscript to his publisher. If he is an experienced writer, he does not delude himself with the idea that it is exactly as he wants it even though he may have worked over it several times. All he will allow himself to think is that it is as good as he can make it at that particular time. Some weeks or months later the manuscript comes back along with the first proofs. He gets down to work on them. As he does so, he will find himself again and again wondering how on earth he could have let this or that sentence go. Changes of the printed text beyond a certain percentage of the cost will be charged to his account, but, even with that to deter him, he will not always find it possible to resist changing sentences that seemed all right to him some weeks or months before. Have you ever seen a reproduction of one of Balzac’s proofs? You can hardly see the print on many pages because of the deletion marks, alterations, additions — even the margins disappear in the spate of corrections.
Here is the history of one sentence from Hardy’s Tess of the D’ Urbervilles:
1. The reaping-machine left the fallen corn behind it in little heaps, each heap being of the quantity for a sheaf; and upon these the binders laid their hands — some of them in print shirts and corduroy trousers supported by leather straps round their waists, which rendered useless the two brace-buttons behind; so that they shone. . . .
2. The reaping-machine . . . and upon these the active binders in the rear laid their hands — mainly women, but some of them men in print shirts and corduroy trousers supported round their waists by leather straps, rendering useless the two brace-buttons behind; so that they twinkled and glared at every….
3. . . . which rendered useless the two brace- buttons; so that their only seeming purpose was to twinkle and glare at every movement of the wearer, as if they were a pair of small eyes in the small of his back.
4. . . . rendering useless the two brace-buttons behind, their only seeming purpose being to! twinkle and glare….
5. . . . rendering useless the two brace-buttons behind, which twinkled and bristled with sun- 2. beams at every movement of the wearer, as if they were a pair of eyes in the small of his back.
Even that account of the alterations to the sentence is not fully complete. The full account is to be found in Word for Word by Wallace Hildick (Faber).
In that same book you will find a record of the many changes the poet Blake made in his poem that every child knows ‘Tiger, tiger burning bright’. These are far too numerous to give in detail here, but I give you a few of them in order to show that behind what seems simple and spontaneous there may lie a great deal of work.
1. And did he laugh his work to see
What the shoulder what the knee
2. And did he smile his work to see
What the ankle what the knee
3. And dare he laugh his work to see
What the ankle what the knee
Did he who made the lamb make thee?
4. And dare he laugh his work to see
What the ankle what the knee
Dare he who made the lamb make thee?
Finally out of these efforts came:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?
Poetry may be the last thing you think of writing, but however prose-directed your interests arc you can hardly fail to be interested in seeing a sample of the work that had to be done before one of the most spontaneous-seeming poems in the English language took final shape. Odd how long it took Blake to get rid of ‘ankle’! Tiger’s ankle!
I’ve given you examples of two writers at work, but it is not only recognized writers in the literary field who put themselves to this amount of trouble. Charles Darwin was another. He is not thought of as a writer, though he wrote two of the most influential books in modern times. He wrote once that there seemed to be some thing perverse in his brain designed to ensure that his sentences would come ‘out wrongly the first time he wrote them.
You may not think these examples of the labor of writing altogether appropriate in a book called Writing — The Easy Way. But think again. It is perhaps something to know that, when you look at what you have written and find it all wrong, you are in the position that every writer in every language finds himself in as often as not. There are, of course, times when the thing comes out right.
What is happening during this process of revision? Why should constructive revision be so much easier after a lapse of time? I think that both these questions have very much the same answer. I have often read that it is his greater distance from the work that enables the writer to see that what he thought right is not so right after all, but I don’t think that is much of an explanation; it is more to the point to say that he is closer to the position the reader will be in. While he is writing, he is selecting words and ideas. That implies rejecting. What he has rejected is, however, still fairly fresh in his mind; so, when he rereads his work immediately after writing it, he reads into it not only what a stranger would read into it but also some of the rejected ideas. He finds it impossible to disentangle what the written words themselves suggest from what they suggest through their association with the words he rejected. After the lapse of time, however, he is much more dependent upon what is on the page — and that is the position the reader is in.
Learning to write well begins when you learn how to read as others read you. You will make a big step towards being able to do so if you get it right into the middle of your head that the reader is entirely dependent upon a combination of the words on the paper and his past experience; the ideas you have rejected while engaged on the actual writing may still be hovering in the margins of your consciousness but they have never entered his mind.
Here is the article you asked for. You didn’t give me much time, so you will have to accept it more or less as it rolled off my printer. You’d be handing it over to your sentence-shortener anyway.
Yes, I did know an editor who had a ‘sentence shortener’ on his staff. On the pay-roll the ‘sentence-shortener’ was called a sub-editor, but about eighty percent. of his time was spent shortening sentences. Even when I had time to give an article for that magazine the full treatment, which for the most part meant shortening the sentences of my first draft, I would still find that a further shortening process had taken place before the article went to the printer.
Below, you will find a number of statements. Untangle them. You will almost certainly find that the best way of doing so is to have two or three short sentences in place of one long one.
1. What has happened is that out of his past experience he has been able to put a meaning into the sounds I made and he heard that for all practical purpose is the same as the meaning I had in my mind when I made those sounds.
2. What I am concerned with is that, whenever you take up your pen and write, people who read what you write are learning about you as well as about what you are writing about.
3. He is reading into what you write not only his ideas of what your words mean but also his idea of what kind of person you are and the more experienced a reader he is the more likely he is to pay attention to what he thinks is the kind of person you are.
4. No matter how true and well-supported your facts are they will not seem so true or so well supported if they are not competently set down in writing and the best of all possible reasons seems less than the best if the language in which it is expressed is less than the best language for the occasion.
5. It is sometimes the case that a piece of writing which has been written by somebody obviously inexperienced in writing with misspellings, grammatical errors and all that achieves its purpose better than writing written by a practiced writer.
Now turn to Answers and Comments.
Here is a definition from Webster’s Third International Dictionary. Any comment?
onion-skin: n. a light brown that is stronger and slightly redder and darker than alesan, stronger and slightly yellower and darker than blush, lighter, stronger, and slightly redder than French beige, and redder, stronger and slightly lighter than cork.
1. What has happened? Using his past experience, he has put meanings into the sounds that reached him. And those meanings are, for all practical purposes, the same as the meanings I had in my mind when I spoke.
2. My point is that from what you have written people will be learning about you. That is in addition to whatever you are telling them about anything else.
3. Into your words he is reading his own meanings. At the same time he is also forming an impression of the kind of person you are. The more experienced he is as a reader the fuller will be his impression of you.
4. Your facts will not seem quite so true if they are not competently expressed; your logic will not seem sound if your writing is not sound.
5. Occasionally a poor piece of writing is more effective than a piece that is good by all the accepted standards.