Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Olden Craft of Writing

Last week I finished reading an old book on the craft of writing I got from the library. Its title was Good English, by Percival Gurrey.
To give you a faint idea how old the book is, the last time someone borrowed it was in 1976.
The date on its first page is not clear because the library, ages ago, has printed its logo on top of it. But doing some research on its authors, I can assume the work was published around 1945.

I am aware that many of its concepts might be outdated by now; the way writers write today is much different than the way they wrote before the 1940s. Yet, their works have become part of a classic canon, their writing skills are praised as being unequaled, and they are read and studied in schools and universities much, much more than the books written today are.

This makes me think that, although their ways of writing reflect ages that are no more, maybe there is still something we can learn from the "old-school" and "obsolete" tips that contemporary teachers and professors seem to hate so much.
How beautiful would it be if we could find a way to blend old-school writing skills with the 21st century writing trends and tendencies!
Following is a summary of the most interesting tips I found in the book:

1) Opening Sentence
Use a crisp opening sentence!
Your purpose is to secure your audience, arrest them with a sentence that will make them read on.

2) Sentences
They can be of any length, but remember that what is written must be easy for the reader to grasp.
It is necessary for a practicing writer to become sentence-conscious. For example, deliberately alternating simple sentences with longish ones you will automatically make the writing more varied and, therefore, less dull for the reader.

3) Paragraphs
A paragraph is normally a subdivision of a much larger topic.
The opening sentence of each paragraph should lead right into the subject; the rest of the paragraph is then an extension of the initial statement.
The length of a paragraph should vary according to the needs and the complexity of the your thoughts.

4) Planning
A good way to start is by listing as many aspects of your broad subject as you intend to cover. If you find this difficult, it is likely that you don't know enough about it, and must study it further.
When the list is made, consider the order of the topics: do they flow logically?
A plan, of course, can be altered as your writing proceeds. A plan doesn't have to be followed slavishly, but should be taken as a rough sketch of the novel or story.

5) Wordiness, Clichés and Journalese
The commonest fault is writing too much, often using words and phrases to be avoided.
Clichés are some of them. They have a particularly deadening effect on the writer's prose; our mind has become so familiar with them through constant repetition that they have lost the freshness and force they originally had.
Journalese is the most extreme form of wordiness! It makes faulty use of redundancy and over-elaborated metaphors and similes. The best tip in this case is to "cut the cackle" and get to the point using straightforward and simple English!

6) Brevity
Say what you have to say in the most effective way. Keep in mind that, often, the most effective way is the shortest.
Long words and sentences, unless justified by the context, only reveal the writer's pompous personality.
Of course, the riches of a language are meant to be used; but if you come up with two sentences of equal strength for your purpose, you should choose the shortest.

I personally find these tips very useful.
Do you think they still apply to today's writing techniques? Is there anything you would like to add to complete them?




  1. Replies
    1. Lass,
      I also think so!
      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Percival Gurrey is spot-on. :) I like Strunk and White's Elements of Style, which seems to be similar.

  3. Good advice doesn't date. But moving on, 'old books' - I'm talking about fiction - that have dated, still make great reads if you have the patience and ability to travel in time. It's a case of 'getting' the author's voice. In doing so you slip into almost alien thought processes and thus into another world. Fenimore Cooper and much of Thackeray is a meandering tangle but they evoke a world

  4. Ahahha! I love "cut the cackle". I love your last point. It could've been best said with one word: concise!

    Another writing tip is using power words. Don't use walk when you could use stomp. Drink when you could use slurp. Laugh when you could use chortle. One word cold create a powerful change in mood.

    You can't tell I'm an author, can you? ;)


    A to Z co-host

  5. I like this quote from Hart Crane: “One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.” (From a good Web site, Advice to Writers: http://www.advicetowriters.com/)

    That’s probably more important than formal rules, but I think something essential we can learn from the old-school writers and books is that we need to slow down, to be quiet and respectful and listen to the words that we’ve inherited and the way those want to fit together, as well as the bright new words we’re finding for ourselves out there each day in the modern idiom.

  6. Lostariel,
    I don't know the book you mentioned, but I might try to find information on the internet. Thanks for the tip!

    That's what I also believe, "good advice doesn't date". Sometimes I wonder why professors and teachers are often a priori against old-school approaches to knowledge. You're also a professor, maybe you can help me understand that...

    Hi Elizabeth,
    Yes, concise is the word!
    Power words, I totally agree. Personally, I think that power words also work in speeches and in daily language too.
    Thanks for stopping by.
    Ah, an author? Don't tell!

    Hello Christie,
    Thank you for sending me the link! As for anything, the only way to be successful is to merge yourself in it. So, if writing is your goal, then you should soak yourself in words! I totally agree.
    Basically, you're saying that we should use the old words we inherited, the new words we learn, and skillfully put them together according to the best combinations we can find? I agree!
    And brevity, well, that paragraph wasn't really addressed to those who comment... Maybe unconsciously it was though :)

  7. Oooo... I love old books... There's such a magic to them. And an old book on writing? I've never seen/read one! I'm shocked with how relevant the tips were. I thought they would've been more out dated :) Very fun.

  8. They are the way I like to write,(kind of hard to do and be amusing without pictures.) I see more diverse styles now but the best still follow these rules.

  9. These tips are still very much true for today. So, his advice is quite timeless ... thus far. I've been told to quit using thus. Sigh.

  10. Morgan,
    Think for example of the Poetics by Aristotle. It doesn't really focus on techniques, but definitely on the most important principles of writing; to me, they're still valid!

    We're on the same page!

    I've also been told not to use "thus", but I still do!

  11. I don't think I've read any old books on the craft of writing, though I love old novels.

    Nice tips. I think the one that talks about sentence length is excellent. Rhythm matters.

    By the way, I followed a comment of yours from Claudia's blog. I have a few friends who are both actors and writers. Very cool. Good luck to you!

  12. Thank you, Dawn.
    I agree with you, rhythm also plays an important role!
    Welcome and thanks for joining my blog!

  13. Back to basics but still very relevant. Interesting!