« AnteriorContinuar »
FIRST LESSONS IN THE ART OF WRITING.
DILIGENTLY practise Composition—that is to say, the correct and pleasing expression of your thoughts in words. I do not mean that you should begin by writing a speech —that comes at the end of your training ; but learn first to frame a neat sentence in apt language. Indeed, when
you have achieved this, you are almost at the end of your labours. Simple as it seems, here lies all the difficulty. Words ; sentences. Who has not words? you say. Who does not talk in sentences ? I answer by another question ; who does ? Try it. You are, I believe, unpractised as yet in composition, beyond the writing of a love-letter in bad English, or verses in worse Latin.
and put down upon paper the first halfdozen reflections that come into your mind—no matter what the subject. Now read what you have written. First, examine the words—do they express precisely what you mean to say? Are they fit words, expressive words—in brief, the right words? You must confess that they are not. Some are altogether wrong; some are vague, some weak, some out of keeping with the
Take your pen
subject, some slovenly, some too big, others too small; strong adjectives are used as props to feeble nouns; and do you not see how continually you use three words to clothe an idea which would have been far more effectively conveyed in one ?
Then look at your sentences, how rude they are, how shapeless, how they dislocate the thoughts they are designed to embody, how they vex the tongue to speak, and grate upon the ear that listens. There is no music, no rhythm, no natural sequence of ideas, scarcely even correct grammar. And mark how the sentences are thrown together without order, severing the chain of thought, this one having little connection with its predecessor, and none at all with its successor.
Are you satisfied now that composition is an art, to be learned by labour and self-training, and that it is not so easy as talking in a smoking-room, with a short pipe to fill
up the vacuities in thoughts and words? Being assured of this by experiment, you will probably feel rather more inclined to make the necessary exertions to acquire an art which must be the foundation of your studies in the art of speaking, and after this manner may you proceed with your task.
Be content, for a time, with writing down the thoughts of others, and this for a special purpose that will presently be apparent.
Take a writer of good English - Swift, Addison, Dryden, Macaulay, Cobbett, or even leading articles of the Times (usually models of pure, nervous English)—and read half a page twice or thrice ; close the book and write, in your own words, what you have read ; borrowing, nevertheless, so much as you can remember from the author. Compare what you have written with the
original, sentence by sentence, and word by word, and observe how far you have fallen short of the skilful author. You will thus not only find out your faults, but you
will take the measure of them, and discover where they lie, and how they may be mended. Repeat the lesson with the same passages twice or thrice, if your memory is not filled with the words of the author, and observe, at each trial, the progress you have made, not merely by comparison with the original, but by comparison with the previous exercises. Do this day after day, changing your author for the purpose of varying the style, and continue to do so long after you have passed on to the second and more advanced stages of your training. Preserve all your exercises, and occasionally compare the latest with the earliest, and so measure your progress periodically.
In this first lesson I pray you to give especial attention to the words, which, to my mind, are of greater importance than the sentences. Take your nouns first, and compare them with the nouns used by your author. You will probably find your words to be very much bigger than his, more sounding, more far-fetched, more classical, or more poetical. All young writers and speakers fancy that they cannot sufficiently revel in fine words. Comparison with the great masters of English will rebuke this pomposity of inexperience, and chasten your aspirations after magniloquence. You will discover, to your surprise, that our best writers eschew big words and abhor fine words. Where there is a choice, they prefer the pure, plain, simple English noun -the name by which the thing is known to all their countrymen and which, therefore, is instantly understood by every audience.
These great authors call a spade“ a
spade;" only small scribblers or penny-a-liners term it "an implement of husbandry." If there is a choice of names, good writers prefer the homeliest, while you select the most uncommon, supposing that you have thus avoided vulgarity. The example of the masters of the English tongue should teach you that common-ness (if I may be allowed to coin a word to express that for which I can find no precise equivalent) and vulgarity are not the same in substance. Vulgarity is shown in assumption and affectation of language quite as much as in dress and manners, and it is never vulgar to be natural. Your object is to be understood. You will be required to address all sorts and conditions of men; to be successful, you must write and talk in a language that all classes of your countrymen can understand; and such is the natural vigor, picturesqueness and music of our tongue, that you could not possess yourself of a more powerful instrument for oratory. It is well for you to be assured that, while by this choice of homely English for the expression of your thoughts you secure the ears of the common people, you will at the same time please the most highly educated and refined. The words that have won the applause of a mob at an election are equally successful in securing a hearing in the House of Commons, provided that the thoughts expressed and the manner of their expression be adapted to the changed audience.
Then for the sentences. Look closely at their construction, comparing it with that of your author; I mean, note how you have put your words together. The best way to do this is to write two or three sentences from the book and interline your own sentences, word by word, as nearly as you can, and then you will discover what are your faults in the arrangement of your words. The placing of words is next in importance to the choice of them. The best writers preserve the natural order of thought. They sedulously shun obscurities and perplexities. They avoid long and involved sentences. Their rule is, that one sentence should express one thought. and they will not venture on the introduction of two or three thoughts, if they can help it. Undoubtedly this is often extremely difficult ; sometimes impossible. If you want to qualify an assertion, you must do so on the instant ; but the rule should never be forgotten, that a long and involved sentence is to be avoided, wherever it is practicable to do so.
There is another lesson you will doubtless learn from the comparison of your composition with that of your model author. You will see a wonderful number of adjectives in your own writing, and very few in his. It is the besetting sin of young writers to indulge in adjectives, and precisely as a man gains experience do his adjectives diminish in number. It seems to be supposed by all unpractised scribblers—and it is a fixed creed with the penny-a-lining class—that the multiplication of epithets gives force. The nouns are never left to speak for themselves. It is curious to take up any newspaper and read the paragraphs of news, especially if they are clipped from a provincial journal, or supplied by a penny-a-liner ; or to open the books of nine-tenths of our authors of the third and downward ranks. You will rarely see a noun standing alone, without one or more adjectives prefixed. Be assured that this is a mistake. An adjective should never be used unless it is essential to correct description. As a general rule, adjectives add little strength to the noun they are set to prop, and a multiplication of them is always enfeebling. The vast