What Old-Time Prose Can Teach You About Writing Content on the Internet

My short list of favorite writing booksAnne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing—has nothing of the sort like F.L. Lucas’s Style: The Art of Writing Well. Lucas was a Cambridge professor whose thoughts on prose and critical writing date back half a century. And yet, I absolutely adored his insights and perspective.

Not only adored but also found so relevant and actionable. Many popular writing books tend to approach writing from a fiction/novel angle, giving advice that seldom crosses over to my daily work with content and blogging. There’s a bit of that here in Style (and a lot of French, too, interestingly enough), but I’ve found more useful anecdotes and examples in Style—useful for the work I’m doing today, online—than I’ve found in most any writing book in the past several years.

Full of wit and quick takes, and pulling inspiration from a long list of legendary writers and authors, Style is a surprising, enjoyable, useful gem.

Highly recommended.

put yourself in the reader's place

Style: The Art of Writing Well by F.L. Lucas

The following are excerpts taken from F.L. Lucas’s Style: The Art of Writing Well. Bold and italics are mine. The rest is Lucas’s.

***

The primary question, therefore, is how best to move and direct men’s feelings.

For even the most factual writing may involve feeling.

Even the coldest biological monograph on the habits of flatworms, or the most detached piece of historical research into the price of eggs under Edward I, may be written so lucidly, argued so neatly, as to stir pleasure and admiration. Even mathematical solutions (though here I speak with trembling) can have aesthetic beauty.

Those who publish make themselves public in more ways than they sometimes realize. Authors may sell their books: but they give themselves away.

My preference in this matter is for those who have never given in to the world – who have remained as proud as Lucifer, as unbending as Coriolanus. When Wordsworth, or Hopkins, follows his own crotchets to the limit, Wordsworth seems to me at times rather stupid, and Hopkins downright silly; but I respect their independence. I like the aloofness of Landor, and Stendhal’s acceptance of being unappreciated for half a century to come, and Flaubert’s disdain for both critics and public. And when Ibsen said that, if Peer Gynt were not the Norwegian idea of poetry, then it was going to become so, this seems finely consistent with his brave contempt for all ‘compact majorities’.

One should not aim at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand.

– Quintillian

Character, I have suggested, is the first thing to think about in style. The next step is to consider what characteristics can win a hearer’s or a reader’s sympathy.

For example, it is bad manners to give them needless trouble. Therefore clarity. It is bad manners to waste their time. Therefore brevity.

The obscurity of inconsiderateness is often due to egotism – to an absent-minded assumption that one’s own knowledge must be shared by others. The use of too technical language may arise from a similar reason; or from the baser one of mere pretentiousness.

The obscurity of overcrowding arises from trying to say too many things at once. It may come from having too many ideas and, like Juliet’s Nurse, too little sense of relevance.

A writer, I think, should be prepared ruthlessly to reject even his brightest inspirations, if they lure him off his line of argument

Trouble may spring from being, not too fond of one’s own ideas, but too unsure of them. This is often noticeable in young writers.

After launching out into a sentence, they are seized by sudden misgivings and add qualification after qualification, in subordinate clauses, as they go. It would often be better to think again; to put aside the second thoughts that are not really necessary; and to postpone those that are necessary, to separate sentences.

The local bard, a monumental mason, ‘is a gentleman of so much reading, that the people of our town cannot understand him’.

How is clarity to be acquired? Mainly by taking trouble; and by writing to serve people rather than to impress them.

Most obscurity, I suspect, comes not so much from incompetence as from ambition – the ambition to be admired for depth of sense, or pomp of sound, or wealth of ornament.

It is for the writer to think and rethink his ideas till they are clear; to put them in a clear order; to prefer (other things equal, and subject to the law of variety) short words, sentences, and paragraphs; not to try to say too many things at once; to eschew irrelevances; and, above all, to put himself with imaginative sympathy in his reader’s place.

It was a very wise Scottish professor who always asked his pupils, when they brought their essays, ‘Now did ye remember to tear up that first page?’

Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether books would not gain if their authors had first to telegraph them at their own expense.

A fourth advantage of brevity – its power to imply things. The reader has to supply what is missing; and he relishes the result all the more because it seems partly his own.

Lord Abinger (1769–1844) attributed his success at the bar to concentration on one vital point, without dwelling over-much on others:

I find if I exceed half an hour, I am always doing a mischief to my client: if I drive into the heads of the jury important matter, I drive out matter more important that I had previously lodged there.

Writers are apt to forget this.

To the memory of Erskine clings that deadly gibe of The Anti-Jacobin, which apologized for not reporting him in full because the printer had run out of capital I’s.

Plain prose, I think, should be not too far from talk, and not too near.

Whereas it is no praise to say that a person talks like a book, it seems to me a high compliment to say that a book talks like a living person.

Really good styles seem to have a voice of their own. You hear it as soon as you begin to read them.

In short, imagine the greatest man you can think of, in a bad temper – does he still, at that moment, seem great? No. Not even were he Alexander. Real greatness implies balance and control.

…that art of persuasion which is so large a part of style.

If you have the gift of gaiety, thank Heaven and do not be too afraid to use it.

In short, you may ironically overstate, or ironically understate; but I suggest that you should always flee from blind exaggeration as from the fiend.

The one unpardonable fault in an author – and perhaps the commonest – is tediousness.

Is easy for a monologue in conversation to become a bore; easier still for speech; easiest of all for a book.

I suggest that anyone who goes through the next thing he writes, seeing to it that most of his sentences end with words that really matter, may be surprised to find how the style gains, like a soggy biscuit dried in the oven.

Tennyson, for example, had what seems to me something like a mania about ‘kicking the geese out of the boat’; that is, avoiding the juxtaposition of a word ending with ‘s’ and a following word beginning with it.

Disguise of metrical rhythms can be effected partly by moderation in their use; partly by wide variation of the rhythms employed – iambic, trochaic, anapaestic, even dactylic.

Safety lies in variety.

A tendency to metre can be counteracted by abundance of consecutive unstressed syllables. One way of obtaining this abundance is to employ plenty of polysyllables.

Temperaments are so various that there may be even more than ‘nine-and-sixty ways’ of writing books. Rousseau, for example, could not compose with pen in hand: but then Chateaubriand could not compose without. Wordsworth did it while walking, riding, or in bed; but Southey, only at his desk. Shakespeare, we are told, never blotted a line; Scott could toss first drafts unread to the printer; Trollope drilled himself, watch on desk, to produce two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour; Hilaire Belloc, so Desmond MacCarthy once told me, claimed to have written twenty thousand of them in a day; and in ten days Balzac could turn out sixty thousand. On the other hand Ronsard and Montaigne, FitzGerald and George Moore, went on sedulously repolishing even their published works. One need not believe too literally in Oscar Wilde’s account of how he spent the morning putting in a comma, and the afternoon in taking it out again; but Flaubert could really toil for three days to grind out eight lines – ‘qu’il faut pourtant raturer encore’.

When a writer thinks of brilliant ideas or phrases, such that neither he nor others can think of how he thought of them, men used to call it ‘inspiration’. ‘Hé bien, Monsieur,’ King Murat of Naples would cry to Samuel Rogers (of all people), when he met him out riding, ‘êtes-vous inspiré aujourd’hui?’ When Dickens was asked where he got Mr. Pickwick, he could only reply that he had thought of Mr. Pickwick. Such sudden illuminations the Hebrew prophet attributed to the spirit of the Lord; the Greek poet assigned them to the gracious hands of a Muse (etymologically akin to mania, ‘madness’, and mantis, ‘seer’); but we appear to owe them rather to that amorphous and sinister monster, the Unconscious.

Men know far less than they think; but they also think far more than they know.

No doubt the artist or the thinker may carry his day-dreaming to excess, so that it becomes a vice – Balzac called it ‘smoking enchanted cigars’. But it pays, I think, to meditate a good deal, both before beginning to write, and at intervals while writing. The processes of creation may refuse to be bustled. The writer’s reverie with a cigarette by the fire may not be as wasteful as Balzac suggests. It may not only turn paper into smoke; it may also turn smoke into paper.

Buffon’s paradox: ‘Le génie n’est qu’une grande aptitude à la patience.’

Michael Angelo:

What one takes most pains to do, should look as if it had been thrown off quickly, almost without effort – nay, despite the truth, as if it had cost no trouble. Take infinite pains to make something that looks effortless.

The method of writing I have suggested, though there are doubtless many others, falls roughly into these stages.

(a) Meditation and documentation.

(b) Incubation. Periods of alternate thought, quick writing, and partial revision, till the first draft is complete. Revision; further documentation, correction, curtailment, and amplification. This can be repeated indefinitely, subject to the danger of the book’s growing unwieldy, overloaded, or stale.

It is good to be a great writer: it remains more important to be an honest man.

I believe that a writer should try, not to be different from others, but to be himself; not to write ‘originally’, but as well as he possibly can.

I believe that a writer should try, not

If you can remember to pursue clarity, brevity, and courtesy to readers; to be, if not gay, at least good-humoured; never to write a line without considering whether it is really true, whether you have not exaggerated your statement, or its evidence; to shun dead images, and cherish living ones; and to revise unremittingly – then, though you may not, even so, write well, you are likely at least to write less badly. For, obvious as such precepts are, nine-tenths of the books that are written seem to me to ignore one or more of them.

‘Every day I am learning to write.’

You can buy the book here. :)

style the art of writing well

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