Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

How To Write

It is supposed that you have learned your letters, and how to make them.
It is supposed that you have written the school copies, from

Apes and Amazons aim at Art

down to

Zanies and Zodiacs are the zest of Zoroaster


It is supposed that you can mind your p's and q's, and, as Harriet Byron said of Charles Grandison, in the romance which your great-grandmother knew by heart, "that you can spell well." Observe the advance of the times, dear Stephen. That a gentleman should spell well was the only literary requisition which the accomplished lady of his love made upon him a hundred years ago. And you, if you go to Mrs. Vandermeyer's party to-night, will be asked by the fair Marcia, what is your opinion as to the origin of the Myth of Ceres!

These things are supposed. It is also supposed that you have, at heart and in practice, the essential rules which have been unfolded in Chapters II. and III. As has been already said, these are as necessary in one duty of life as in another,--in writing a President's message as in finding your way by a spotted trail, from Albany to Tamworth.

These things being supposed, we will now consider the special needs for writing, as a gentleman writes, or a lady, in the English language, which is, fortunately for us, the best language of them all.

I will tell you, first, the first lesson I learned about it; for it was the best, and was central. My first undertaking of importance in this line was made when I was seven years old. There was a new theatre, and a prize of a hundred dollars was offered for an ode to be recited at the opening,--or perhaps it was only at the opening of the season. Our school was hard by the theatre, and as we boys were generally short of spending-money, we conceived the idea of competing for this prize. You can see that a hundred dollars would have gone a good way in barley-candy and blood-alleys,--which last are things unknown, perhaps, to Young America to-day. So we resolutely addressed ourselves to writing for the ode. I was soon snagged, and found the difficulties greater than I had thought. I consulted one who has through life been Nestor and Mentor to me,--(Second class in Greek,--Wilkins, who was Nestor?--Right; go up. Third class in French,--Miss Clara, who was Mentor?--Right; sit down),--and he replied by this remark, which I beg you to ponder inwardly, and always act upon:--

"Edward," said he, "whenever I am going to write anything, I find it best to think first what I am going to say."

In the instruction thus conveyed is a lesson which nine writers out of ten have never learned. Even the people who write leading articles for the newspapers do not, half the time, know what they are going to say when they begin. And I have heard many a sermon which was evidently written by a man who, when he began, only knew what his first "head" was to be. The sermon was a sort of riddle to himself, when he started, and he was curious as to how it would come out. I remember a very worthy gentleman who sometimes spoke to the Sunday school when I was a boy. He would begin without the slightest idea of what he was going to say, but he was sure that the end of the first sentence would help him to the second. This is an example.

"My dear young friends, I do not know that I have anything to say to you, but I am very much obliged to your teachers for asking me to address you this beautiful morning.--The morning is so beautiful after the refreshment of the night, that as I walked to church, and looked around and breathed the fresh air, I felt more than ever what a privilege it is to live in so wonderful a world.--For the world, dear children, has been all contrived and set in order for us by a Power so much higher than our own, that we might enjoy our own lives, and live for the happiness and good of our brothers and our sisters.--Our brothers and our sisters they are indeed, though some of them are in distant lands, and beneath other skies, and parted from us by the broad oceans.--These oceans, indeed, do not so much divide the world as they unite it. They make it one. The winds which blow over them, and the currents which move their waters,--all are ruled by a higher law, that they may contribute to commerce and to the good of man.--And man, my dear children," &c., &c., &c.

You see there is no end to it. It is a sort of capping verses with yourself, where you take up the last word, or the last idea of one sentence, and begin the next with it, quite indifferent where you come out, if you only "occupy the time" that is appointed. It is very easy for you, but, my dear friends, it is very hard for those who read and who listen!

The vice goes so far, indeed, that you may divide literature into two great classes of books. The smaller class of the two consists of the books written by people who had something to say. They had in life learned something, or seen something, or done something, which they really wanted and needed to tell to other people. They told it. And their writings make, perhaps, a twentieth part of the printed literature of the world. It is the part which contains all that is worth reading. The other nineteen-twentieths make up the other class. The people have written just as you wrote at school when Miss Winstanley told you to bring in your compositions on "Duty Performed." You had very little to say about "Duty Performed." But Miss Winstanley expected three pages. And she got them,--such as they were.

Our first rule is, then,

Know What You Want To Say.

The second rule is,

Say It.

That is, do not begin by saying something else, which you think will lead up to what you want to say. I remember, when they tried to teach me to sing, they told me to "think of eight and sing seven." That may be a very good rule for singing, but it is not a good rule for talking, or writing, or any of the other things that I have to do. I advise you to say the thing you want to say. When I began to preach, another of my Nestors said to me, "Edward, I give you one piece of advice. When you have written your sermon, leave off the introduction and leave off the conclusion. The introduction seems to me always written to show that the minister can preach two sermons on one text. Leave that off, then, and it will do for another Sunday. The conclusion is written to apply to the congregation the doctrine of the sermon. But, if your hearers are such fools that they cannot apply the doctrine to themselves, nothing you can say will help them." In this advice was much wisdom. It consists, you see, in advising to begin, at the beginning, and to stop when you have done.

Thirdly, and always,

Use Your Own Language.

I mean the language you are accustomed to use in daily life. David did much better with his sling than he would have done with Saul's sword and spear. And Hatty Fielding told me, only last week, that she was very sorry she wore her cousin's pretty brooch to an evening dance, though Fanny had really forced it on her. Hatty said, like a sensible girl as she is, that it made her nervous all the time. She felt as if she were sailing under false colors. If your every-day language is not fit for a letter or for print, it is not fit for talk. And if, by any series of joking or fun, at school or at home, you have got into the habit of using slang in talk, which is not fit for print, why, the sooner you get out of it the better. Remember that the very highest compliment paid to anything printed is paid when a person, hearing it read aloud, thinks it is the remark of the reader made in conversation. Both writer and reader then receive the highest possible praise.

It is sad enough to see how often this rule is violated. There are fashions of writing. Mr. Dickens, in his wonderful use of exaggerated language, introduced one. And now you can hardly read the court report in a village paper but you find that the ill-bred boy who makes up what he calls its "locals" thinks it is funny to write in such a style as this:--

"An unfortunate individual who answered to the somewhat well-worn sobriquet of Jones, and appeared to have been trying some experiments as to the comparative density of his own skull and the materials of the sidewalk, made an involuntary appearance before Mr. Justice Smith."

Now the little fool who writes this does not think of imitating Dickens. He is only imitating another fool, who was imitating another, who was imitating another,--who, through a score of such imitations, got the idea of this burlesque exaggeration from some of Mr. Dickens's earlier writings of thirty years ago. It was very funny when Mr. Dickens originated it. And almost always, when he used it, it was very funny. But it is not in the least funny when these other people use it, to whom it is not natural, and to whom it does not come easily. Just as this boy says "sobriquet," without knowing at all what the word means, merely because he has read it in another newspaper, everybody, in this vein, gets entrapped into using words with the wrong senses, in the wrong places, and making himself ridiculous.

Now it happens, by good luck, that I have, on the table here, a pretty file of eleven compositions, which Miss Winstanley has sent me, which the girls in her first class wrote, on the subject I have already named. The whole subject, as she gave it out, was, "Duty performed is a Rainbow in the Soul." I think, myself, that the subject was a hard one, and that Miss Winstanley would have done better had she given them a choice from two familiar subjects, of which they had lately seen something or read something. When young people have to do a thing, it always helps them to give them a choice between two ways of doing it. However, Miss Winstanley gave them this subject. It made a good deal of growling in the school, but, when the time came, of course the girls buckled down to the work, and, as I said before, the three pages wrote themselves, or were written somehow or other.

Now I am not going to inflict on you all these eleven compositions. But there are three of them which, as it happens, illustrate quite distinctly the three errors against which I have been warning you. I will copy a little scrap from each of them. First, here is Pauline's. She wrote without any idea, when she began, of what she was going to say.

"Duty performed is a Rainbow in the Soul.

"A great many people ask the question, 'What is duty?' and there has been a great deal written upon the subject, and many opinions have been expressed in a variety of ways. People have different ideas upon it, and some of them think one thing and some another. And some have very strong views, and very decided about it. But these are not always to be the most admired, for often those who are so loud about a thing are not the ones who know the most upon a subject. Yet it is all very important, and many things should be done; and, when they are done, we are all embowered in ecstasy."

That is enough of poor Pauline's. And, to tell the truth, she was as much ashamed when she had come out to this "ecstasy," in first writing what she called "the plaguy thing," as she is now she reads it from the print. But she began that sentence, just as she began the whole, with no idea how it was to end. Then she got aground. She had said, "it is all very important"; and she did not know that it was better to stop there, if she had nothing else to say, so, after waiting a good while, knowing that they must all go to bed at nine, she added, "and many things should be done." Even then, she did not see that the best thing she could do was to put a full stop to the sentence. She watched the other girls, who were going well down their second pages, while she had not turned the leaf, and so, in real agony, she added this absurd "when they are done, we are all embowered in ecstasy." The next morning they had to copy the "compositions." She knew what stuff this was, just as well as you and I do, but it took up twenty good lines, and she could not afford, she thought, to leave it out. Indeed, I am sorry to say, none of her "composition" was any better. She did not know what she wanted to say, when she had done, any better than when she began.

Pauline is the same Pauline who wanted to draw in monochromatic drawing.

Here is the beginning of Sybil's. She is the girl who refused the sponge-cake when Dr. Throop offered it to her. She had an idea that an introduction helped along,--and this is her introduction.

"Duty performed is a Rainbow in the Soul.

"I went out at sunset to consider this subject, and beheld how the departing orb was scattering his beams over the mountains. Every blade of grass was gathering in some rays of beauty, every tree was glittering in the majesty of parting day.

"I said, 'What is life?--What is duty?' I saw the world folding itself up to rest. The little flowers, the tired sheep, were turning to their fold. So the sun went down. He had done his duty, along with the rest."

And so we got round to "Duty performed," and, the introduction well over, like the tuning of an orchestra, the business of the piece began. That little slip about the flowers going into their folds was one which Sybil afterwards defended. She said it meant that they folded themselves up. But it was an oversight when she wrote it; she forgot the flowers, and was thinking of the sheep.

Now I think you will all agree with me that the whole composition would have been better without this introduction.

Sarah Clavers had a genuine idea, which she had explained to the other girls much in this way. "I know what Miss Winstanley means. She means this. When you have had a real hard time to do what you know you ought to do, when you have made a good deal of fuss about it,--as we all did the day we had to go over to Mr. Ingham's and beg pardon for disturbing the Sunday school,--you are so glad it is done, that everything seems nice and quiet and peaceful, just as when a thunder-storm is really over, only just a few drops falling, there comes a nice still minute or two with a rainbow across the sky. That's what Miss Winstanley means, and that's what I am going to say."

Now really, if Sarah had said that, without making the sentence breathlessly long, it would have been a very decent "composition" for such a subject. But when poor Sarah got her paper before her, she made two mistakes. First, she thought her school-girl talk was not good enough to be written down. And, second, she knew that long words took up more room than short; so, to fill up her three pages, she translated her little words into the largest she could think of. It was just as Dr. Schweigenthal, when he wanted to say "Jesus was going to Jerusalem," said, "The Founder of our religion was proceeding to the metropolis of his country." That took three times as much room and time, you see. So Sarah translated her English into the language of the Talkee-talkees; thus:--

"Duty performed is a Rainbow in the Soul.

"It is frequently observed, that the complete discharge of the obligations pressing upon us as moral agents is attended with conflict and difficulty. Frequently, therefore, we address ourselves to the discharge of these obligations with some measure of resistance, perhaps with obstinacy, and I may add, indeed, with unwillingness. I wish I could persuade myself that our teacher had forgotten" (Sarah looked on this as a masterpiece,--a good line of print, which says, as you see, really nothing) "the afternoon which was so mortifying to all who were concerned, when her appeal to our better selves, and to our educated consciousness of what was due to a clergyman, and to the institutions of religion, made it necessary for several of the young ladies to cross to the village," (Sarah wished she could have said metropolis,) "and obtain an interview with the Rev. Mr. Ingham."

And so the composition goes on. Four full pages there are; but you see how they were gained,--by a vicious style, wholly false to a frank-spoken girl like Sarah. She expanded into what fills sixteen lines on this page what, as she expressed it in conversation, fills only five.

I hope you all see how one of these faults brings on another. Such is the way with all faults; they hunt in couples, or often, indeed, in larger company. The moment you leave the simple wish to say upon paper the thing you have thought, you are given over to all these temptations, to write things which, if any one else wrote them, you would say were absurd, as you say these school-girls' "compositions" are. Here is a good rule of the real "Nestor" of our time. He is a great preacher; and one day he was speaking of the advantage of sometimes preaching an old sermon a second time. "You can change the arrangement," he said. "You can fill in any point in the argument, where you see it is not as strong as you proposed. You can add an illustration, if your statement is difficult to understand. Above all, you can

"Leave Out All The Fine Passages."

I put that in small capitals, for one of our rules. For, in nineteen cases out of twenty, the Fine Passage that you are so pleased with, when you first write it, is better out of sight than in. Remember Whately's great maxim, "Nobody knows what good things you leave out."

Indeed, to the older of the young friends who favor me by reading these pages I can give no better advice, by the way, than that they read "Whately's Rhetoric." Read ten pages a day, then turn back, and read them carefully again, before you put the book by. You will find it a very pleasant book, and it will give you a great many hints for clear and simple expression, which you are not so likely to find in any other way I know.

Most of you know the difference between Saxon words and Latin words in the English language. You know there were once two languages in England,--the Norman French, which William the Conqueror and his men brought in, and the Saxon of the people who were conquered at that time. The Norman French was largely composed of words of Latin origin. The English language has been made up of the slow mixture of these two; but the real stock, out of which this delicious soup is made, is the Saxon,--the Norman French should only add the flavor. In some writing, it is often necessary to use the words of Latin origin. Thus, in most scientific writing, the Latin words more nicely express the details of the meaning needed. But, to use the Latin word where you have a good Saxon one is still what it was in the times of Wamba and of Cedric,--it is to pretend you are one of the conquering nobility, when, in fact, you are one of the free people, who speak, and should be proud to speak, not the French, but the English tongue. To those of you who have even a slight knowledge of French or Latin it will be very good fun, and a very good exercise, to translate, in some thoroughly bad author, his Latin words into English.

To younger writers, or to those who know only English, this may seem too hard a task. It will be doing much the same thing, if they will try translating from long words into short ones.

Here is a piece of weak English. It is not bad in other regards, but simply weak.

"Entertaining unlimited confidence in your intelligent and patriotic devotion to the public interest, and being conscious of no motives on my part which are not inseparable from the honor and advancement of my country, I hope it may be my privilege to deserve and secure, not only your cordial co-operation in great public measures, but also those relations of mutual confidence and regard which it is always so desirable to cultivate between members of co-ordinate branches of the government."

[Footnote: From Mr. Franklin Pierce's first message to Congress as President of the United States.]

Take that for an exercise in translating into shorter words. Strike out the unnecessary words, and see if it does not come out stronger. The same passage will serve also as an exercise as to the use of Latin and Saxon words. Dr. Johnson is generally quoted as the English author who uses most Latin words. He uses, I think, ten in a hundred. But our Congressmen far exceed him. This sentence uses Latin words at the rate of thirty-five in a hundred. Try a good many experiments in translating from long to short, and you will be sure that, when you have a fair choice between two words,

A Short Word Is Better Than A Long One.

For instance, I think this sentence would have been better if it had been couched in thirty-six words instead of eighty-one. I think we should have lost nothing of the author's meaning if he had said, "I have full trust in you. I am sure that I seek only the honor and advance of the country. I hope, therefore, that I may earn your respect and regard, while we heartily work together."

I am fond of telling the story of the words which a distinguished friend of mine used in accepting a hard post of duty. He said:--"I do not think I am fit for this place. But my friends say I am, and I trust them. I shall take the place, and, when I am in it, I shall do as well as I can."

It is a very grand sentence. Observe that it has not one word which is more than one syllable. As it happens, also, every word is Saxon,--there is not one spurt of Latin. Yet this was a learned man, who, if he chose, could have said the whole in Latin. But he was one American gentleman talking to another American gentleman, and therefore he chose to use the tongue to which they both were born.

We have not space to go into the theory of these rules, as far as I should like to. But you see the force which a short word has, if you can use it, instead of a long one. If you want to say "hush," "hush" is a much better word than the French "taisez-vous" If you want to say "halt," "halt" is much better than the French "arretez-vous" The French have, in fact, borrowed "halte" from us or from the German, for their tactics. For the same reason, you want to prune out the unnecessary words from your sentences, and even the classes of words which seem put in to fill up. If, for instance, you can express your idea without an adjective, your sentence is stronger and more manly. It is better to say "a saint" than "a saintly man." It is better to say "This is the truth" than "This is the truthful result." Of course an adjective may be absolutely necessary. But you may often detect extempore speakers in piling in adjectives, because they have not yet hit on the right noun. In writing, this is not to be excused. "You have all the time there is," when you write, and you do better to sink a minute in thinking for one right word, than to put in two in its place,--because you can do so without loss of time. I hope every school-girl knows, what I am sure every school-boy knows, Sheridan's saying, that "Easy writing, is hard reading." In general, as I said before, other things being equal,

"The Fewer Words, The Better,"

"as it seems to me." "As it seems to me" is the quiet way in which Nestor states things. Would we were all as careful!

There is one adverb or adjective which it is almost always safe to leave out in America. It is the word "very." I learned that from one of the masters of English style. "Strike out your 'verys,'" said he to me, when I was young. I wish I had done so oftener than I have.

For myself, I like short sentences. This is, perhaps, because I have read a good deal of modern French, and I think the French gain in clearness by the shortness of their sentences. But there are great masters of style,--great enough to handle long sentences well,--and these men would not agree with me. But I will tell you this, that if you have a sentence which you do not like, the best experiment to try on it is the experiment Medea tried on the old goat, when she wanted to make him over:--

Cut It To Pieces.

What shall I take for illustration? You will be more interested in one of these school-girls' themes than in an old Congress speech I have here marked for copying. Here is the first draft of Laura Walter's composition, which happens to be tied up in the same red ribbon with the finished exercises. I will copy a piece of that, and then you shall see, from the corrected "composition," what came of it, when she cut it to pieces, and applied the other rules which we have been studying.

Laura's First Draft.

"Duty performed is a Rainbow in the Soul.

"I cannot conceive, and therefore I cannot attempt adequately to consider, the full probable meaning of the metaphorical expression with which the present 'subject' concludes,--nor do I suppose it is absolutely necessary that I should do so, for expressing the various impressions which I have formed on the subject taken as a whole, which have occurred to me in such careful meditation as I have been able to give to it,--in natural connection with an affecting little incident, which I will now, so far as my limited space will permit, proceed, however inadequately, to describe.

"My dear little brother Frankie--as sweet a little fellow as ever plagued his sister's life out, or troubled the kindest of mothers in her daily duties--was one day returning from school, when he met my father hurrying from his office, and was directed by him to proceed as quickly as was possible to the post-office, and make inquiry there for a letter of a good deal of importance which he had reason to expect, or at the least to hope for, by the New York mail."

Laura had come as far as this early in the week, when bedtime came. The next day she read it all, and saw it was sad stuff, and she frankly asked herself why. The answer was, that she had really been trying to spin out three pages. "Now," said Laura to herself, "that is not fair." And she finished the piece in a very different way, as you shall see. Then she went back over this introduction, and struck out the fine passages. Then she struck out the long words, and put in short ones. Then she saw she could do better yet,--and she cut that long introductory sentence to pieces. Then she saw that none of it was strictly necessary, if she only explained why she gave up the rainbow part. And, after all these reductions, the first part of the essay which I have copied was cut down and changed so that it read thus:--

"Duty performed is a Rainbow in the Soul.

"I do not know what is meant by a Rainbow in the Soul."

Then Laura went on thus:--

"I will try to tell a story of duty performed. My brother Frank was sent to the post-office for a letter. When he came there, the poor child found a big dog at the door of the office, and was afraid to go in. It was just the dead part of the day in a country village, when even the shops are locked up for an hour, and Frank, who is very shy, saw no one whom he could call upon. He tried to make Miss Evarts, the post-office clerk, hear; but she was in the back of the office. Frank was frightened, but he meant to do his duty. So he crossed the bridge, walked up to the butcher's shop in the other village,--which he knew was open,--spent two pennies for a bit of meat, and carried it back to tempt his enemy. He waved it in the air, called the dog, and threw it into the street. The dog was much more willing to eat the meat than to eat Frankie. He left his post. Frank went in and tapped on the glass, and Miss Evarts came and gave him the letter. Frank came home in triumph, and papa said it was a finer piece of duty performed than the celebrated sacrifice of Casabianca's would have been, had it happened that Casabianca ever made it."

That is the shortest of these "compositions." It is much the best. Miss Winstanley took the occasion to tell the girls, that, other things being equal, a short "composition" is better than a long one. A short "composition" which shows thought and care, is much better than a long one which "writes itself."

I dislike the word "composition," but I use it, because it is familiar. I think "essay" or "piece" or even "theme" a better word.

Will you go over Laura's story and see where it could be shortened, and what Latin words could be changed for better Saxon ones?

Will you take care, in writing yourself, never to say "commence" or "presume"?

In the next chapter we will ask each other

HOW TO READ.


Edward Everett Hale

Sorry, no summary available yet.