How We Learn How To Write
Even though my own education was self-directed and patchy, I do have very pretty ideas about how people learn to write.
I am presently taking a distance writing class and I had a course or two at college. What I find is that those kinds of sources have a limited but very important function.
Their limitation is that they will give you fairly generalized instruction, but the benefit is that someone is going to see what you write and point out exactly where you deviate from that instruction. (Hopefully you gain the ability to decide, on mature judgment, which deviations are to the purpose and which are merely oddities.)
Technical excellence is admirable. But I think that the real difference between a good and a bad writer usually comes from less formal influences. In my own case, homeschooling with an emphasis on language was the big one. I have been journaling since the age of eight, when my Mom handed me a marble school notebook and I discovered the forbidden pleasure of discussing myself and my feelings at length. But the most important thing of all – and anyone can tell you this but it is too true not to mention – is the benefit of reading. You have to read better stuff than you hope to write yourself.
I have a theory about how to read poetry. In brief it is that I should only read the poems I succeed in enjoying. Now any worthy enjoyment (this excludes most entertainment) requires some effort. So I like to try enjoying anything I pick up. But if I am not succeeding in enjoying a poem I do not force myself to finish it; rather I go look for something easier. Even if that is only Dr. Seuss.
I believe that people should read for delight; and what’s more I think there is a trail of delight that leads from each good thing to each greater good thing. Starting at the first place where you are able to taste that delight (it is the tang of Truth) and then following that trail will be at the heart of forming good critical skills. (This process is also part of the journey of our souls and it will lead us to better religion and family and society as well.)
Sam asked specifically about precision. In my opinion, the best authors from whom to learn precision in writing are British… Lewis, Chesterton, Tolkein, Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers,…and going further back Jane Austen, but her especially.
And there is one great exception to this Brits-only rule. Many people find Jonathan Edwards to be rather cold and sterile…but I think he was simply a master of precision. It was his writing as well as his theology that captured me in my twentieth year. I think the fire is there but it is forced to run along lanes so miniscule and perfect that you have to fall in with them to catch the fire.
But then to counteract the enchantment of that inessential perfection you have to read and re-read the magnificent imprecision of St. Paul so as not to forget that the fire comes first.
(And where does this fire come from? It is the product of pursuing metaphysical knowledge. Nothing else will do. We must acheive conviction that there is, in some sense at least, a world beyond the obvious material arrangement of our lives; and we must acheive the highest ideas we are able to attain about what that world means and what our world means in relation to it.)
Notice how these writers (St. Paul being an obvious exception) often favour combinations of short, Anglo-Saxon words. While it is true that you can generally say in one Latin-derived word what would require six or ten in the more homely English, that is not always a more precise way to write. Sometimes it robs a writer of the opportunity to make fine distinctions by tweaking a word here and a phrase there.
Crossing disciplines is also important – both in reading and writing. The most important things I learned about writing prose came from trying to fit a complex thought that would normally have devoured a page into four lines of iambic pentameter. There’s nothing like it to make you look at each word in a sentence and exhaust all its possible relationships with all the other words.
Then there is essay writing as opposed to novels or short stories and chatty articles or humorous anecdotes as opposed to speeches…we who hope to be good at any of these disciplines must read and try our hand at all of them if we are to know our tools thoroughly.
Even outside wordworking, crossing disciplines encourages greatness. The confidence we gain from succeeding at downhill skiing; the ambidexterity needed to practice piano; and the awe induced by trying to keep up in a physics or theology class; these can all translate into greater confidence, flexibility, and imaginative powers in our writing.
And speaking of tools, I believe that it’s important to develop a consciousness not only of words but also of larger packages of meaning, which are phrases, sentences, and paragraphs.
Sometimes saying what you mean requires moving the phrases in a sentence around until the thing balances properly. Sometimes an essay won’t make sense unless you tell your ideas in the right order; in which case it’s important to be able to keep track of your flow of thought throughout the piece of writing. In other words you have to be able to split, re-combine, and move sentences and paragraphs around.
Sometime when you are writing a sentence try how many different ways you can arrange it.
Ultimately, if you have something to say you will find a way to say exactly what you mean, and that’s what precision is. Good writing is honest writing; it tells the truth. This requires the skill and labor to recognize that reality has its own structure and shape and to ensure that one’s text reflects in its own structure the shape of those realities which it is expressing.
So eventually we must get down to it: practice, practice, practice.
Oh yes: and when we are practicing, we must never become unconscious of how our words, phrases, and sentences sound. Meaning is wrapped up in sound, both tonal and rhythmic. Sometimes the emotional impact of a long word with an ‘s’ in it vs. a shorter one with an ‘f’ is the difference between a acceptable sentence and an effective one.