Bullwhips and Brown Belts: Beach’s Style Guide April 4, 2012Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite , trackback
Beachcombing recently stumbled on an unconventional online guide to being a good writer. Advice ranged from the sensible ‘be honest’, to the silly ‘drink coffee’, to the frankly bizarre ‘have a huge bowel movement each day’. It was entertaining but left Beach no closer to Evelyn Waugh and Walt Whitman. In fact, it left Beach pretty bloody frustrated because it barely touched on what is, for him, the really crucial question: style. The post did though get Beachcombing thinking about his cherished RULES.
Writing has never come easy to this poor sot. Indeed, the following COMMANDMENTS stand as make-shift shelters, put together in desperation over years living on an exposed mountain side. But as they have served Beach through the past two decades it proved cathartic (even in an insanely busy period) to write them out and see them on the computer screen. Any other contributions gratefully received: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com It should be noted that this is written with great humility. Beach finally got his brown belt after long stretches of hard work and bribing officials: and he’s just good enough to know that he’s never going to make it to black. Though if any readers know the right official…
1) If a paragraph/sentence can come out without damaging your writing it shouldn’t be there. That structure must trump content, is one of the hardest lessons to learn. Writers particularly fall down when they are so in love with a secondary sentiment that they build their work around that instead of the central theme; the writing equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci spending more passion on the bridge in the background than on Mona Lisa’s smile. There is a beautiful piece of advice from Samuel Johnson that comes at this from a different direction. ‘Find the sentence you most love and then cross it out.’
2) Introductions stink. Even very experienced writers screw up first paragraphs: pick ten history books and this will be true of six. A common mistake is to effectively write two introductory paragraphs, one after another. When read back both could stand alone (see point one): but together they give a sense of sloppy thinking. What is worse, the more highly charged a piece of writing, the more likely it is that the introduction will be crooked. The tragedy is that Beach can only warn here. He’s never come up with a solution to the problem. At present he is experimenting with the unhelpful ‘be boring’.
3) Short words and old words are good, but short, old words are best. (Who said this?) One of the most frustrating academic experiences that Beachcombing ever had was to have a nincompoop in Edinburgh run through his written work replacing phrasal verbs with Latin verbs: ‘take away’ to ‘remove’ etc etc. Having said that the Anglo-Saxonists sometimes go over the top. A hefty five syllable Latin word can pepper-and-popinjay a passage especially if it is surrounded by some good rough-hewn salty Germanic-sounding words. See further rule ten and bring out the dictionary.
4) Words. There are a series of words that English could probably do without: ‘seem’, ‘may well’, (as opposed to the useful ‘may’), ‘literally’, ‘although’, ‘period’, ‘during’, ‘process’ etc etc. Note too that English is extraordinarily sensitive to dittology or repetition: much more so than other languages that Beach knows. (Why?) If you say ‘though’ twice in the same paragraph, or ‘put’ or ‘cat’ you have committed a capital error. The problem with English is that even if you write ‘although’ (after though) or ‘putting’ (after put) or catnap (after cat) things can get kind of ugly. Also, avoid abstracts: honourable is better than honour.
5) Paragraphs are not just about units of thought: lies these our teachers told us. They are, above all, about page aesthetics: T. E. Lawrence spent hours on the shape of his paragraphs in the Seven Pillars. Your paragraphs do not need to be all the same size, but there should be some sort of symmetry: mid, short, mid, mid, mid, short is acceptable; long, mid, mid, short, mid, short, long would be moving towards ugly. The present paragraph needed this penultimate sentence, so that it became borderline acceptable to the eyes. It probably needs another sentence too, but let’s drop this before it gets old…
7) You should rule punctuation, punctuation should not rule you. Grammarians, correctors and editors pretend that there are scientific rules behind punctuation. This is simply untrue. You use a dash instead of a comma or a full stop instead of a colon because of the effect that you want to have on the reader. The ‘science’ of punctuation is a fool’s errand. When your finger reaches to bottom left of the keyboard strap a bull-whip to your nail. Also avoid brackets whenever possible.
8 ) Practice a lot. Too many people believe that writing well and playing the piano well are different matters. Writing, they opine, is something that most of humanity has down, whereas piano-playing needs hours and scales: cue that common sentence ‘I’m thinking of writing a novel’. The truth, of course, is that writing demands the same kind of practice that playing the piano demands. Day after day, year after year… Note to self: teaching English AND correcting other people’s English AND journalism helps immensely: as does the hell of editing and publishing a book.
9) Revise and review, review and revise. With time you will get to the fourth draft first time. But at the beginning you will start ten or twenty drafts away from the last. Read the text through twice and thrice. Read the text aloud to imaginary audiences. Read the text out to real audiences. Try and remember hunks and repeat it in the shower. Read the text with your ears underwater in the bath. Read aloud into a tape recorder and play back to yourself. When you’ve got to the end of correcting, lock the text in a drawer and re-read it after three days. Then read it backwards, sentence by sentence with a ruler.
10) Create writing rituals. Beach always passionately kisses his keyboard before he has to write something really important: not this post unfortunately. Have your favourite pens, your superstitions, your special writing foods (corn biscuits with bananas, peanuts and honey) and a comfortable chair and a cozy writing area. Light candles if you have to: play around with incense and Satie. Experiment with sexual abstinence and excess. Find 72 hours when you can write and nothing else, particularly when the kids are on holiday.
11) Break all of these rules with impunity, particularly when writing for the internet. This one is borrowed from Orwell apart, of course, from the second clause. Golly, what a blogger Orwell would have made!
7 April 2012: This one comes from Invisible and is a lot of fun from an experienced writer. On writing introductions: a) get someone famous or amusing to do it for you. b) do it only after the entire book is written. In teaching writing I’ve found that the one thing that stops people absolutely dead is trying to start at the beginning. Quotes from Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom from a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights by Jon Winokur “The only way to write is well and how you do it is your own damn business.” –A.J. Liebling “Best advice I’ve ever received: Finish.” –Peter Mayle One of the best sets of advice for fiction writers is “Notes for a Young Writer” by Shirley Jackson. Not advice, but a look at the “unspeakable horror of the literary life”: The Unstrung Harp or Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel by Edward Gorey: Several other memorable quotes: I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit. – P G Wodehouse Remember that once something is written down it becomes truth. – Gary Henderson And my own line, which I often quote to would-be writers, but don’t always live by: A page a day is a book a year. Literally!’ Thanks Invisibile!!