To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man.—Aristotle.
The Little Red Writing Book is about what you have to do to hear just the right words at just the right time to speak them in just the right rhythm.
A sentence is just like a walk
What the morning tells me is that a sentence is just like a walk—like this one in particular. A good sentence is a gravel path through a forest. It’s a track, not a road; it’s a trail, not a footpath. You want it to feel finished, but not mass-produced. You don’t want it to be anonymous. You want it to have a bit of personality, preferably its own, which will resemble yours. You want it to have topography, to rise and fall. And you want it to take a sensible, and reasonably straight, path to wherever it’s meant to be going.
Like Bach’s music
Ellie grew up with Polish and English. On the second morning of a business writing workshop she raised her hand and said this: ‘I came to this course thinking I would learn how to use words like “facilitate” and “maximisation. What I have learned is to have the courage to avoid words like that.’
At the break she said to me, ‘Bach is what you’re talking about here, not?’ All that simple and beautiful intelligence, she meant.Ellie may be, for all I know, the only student I’ve ever had who got hold of my meaning so clearly.
Bach’s music, for me, is brilliant but not showy; spare but not slight. Its simplicity is deceptive but not false, for the music is complex but never opaque. It is mathematics and art in equal measure. Bach is a perfect metaphor, thanks Ellie, for writing well.
Keep your eye on your verbs
Collect verbs. Husband them. Breed them. Fledge them lovingly. Keep the best and make them ready and, when the time comes, set them to work. You’re going to need at least one per sentence, so start your collection today. Don’t let the thesaurus suggest them. Go out and find your own. Then they’ll sound like yours.
Listen for verbs on the radio and in the conversations on the bus. Steal them, adopt them—they’re yours.
Clarity is next to godliness
’Be clear,’ commands EB White.
Clarity has two dimensions:1. What is it that I mean? That is sometimes the hardest part. Too much writing I see is either an unsuccessful search for what it is one meant to say, or it is an attempt to avoid saying it at all.2. How can I say it clearly?