One of the best books I have read recently, and probably the best book on writing I have ever read, is Several short sentences about writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Jamie picked it up for me when we were at a bookstore a couple of months ago thinking I would like it.
Klinkenborg has a Ph.D. in English Literature from Princeton and has taught writing at several universities, but much of what he is doing is challenging the conventional wisdom about writing we have been taught in school.
I guess, like a lot of things, I really like this book, because I agree with him—he articulates things that I have thought without having put them in words.
I’ve pulled out some of what I thought were the best passages—things I wanted to remember and keep. And for my preacher friends, it definitely works to substitute “preaching” for “writing” and “listener” for “reader.”
Here are the passages I wanted to remember.
This is especially true in the school model of writing.
Remember the papers you wrote?
Trying to save the good ideas till the very end?
Hoping to create the illusion that it followed logically from the previous paragraphs?
You were stalling until you had ten pages.
Much of what’s taught under the name of expository writing could be called “The Anxiety of Sequence.”
Its premise is this:
To get where you’re going, you have to begin in just the right place
And take the proper path,
Which depends on knowing where you plan to conclude.
This is like not knowing where to begin a journey
Until you decide where you want it to end.
Begin in the wrong place, make the wrong turn,
And there’s no getting where you want to go.
Why not begin where you already are?
Is there only one way to get where you’re going?
Why were you taught to dwell on transitions?
It was assumed that you can’t write clearly
And that even if you could write clearly,
The reader needs a handrail through your prose.
What does that say about the reader?
That the reader is essentially passive and in need of constant herding.
Are you that kind of reader?
Do you tumble, uncomprehending, through the gaps between paragraphs?
Do you trip over ellipses?
Do you require constant supervision while walking down corridors of prose?
Do you lose the writer’s train of thought unless you’re reminded of it constantly?
[Outlining] fails to realize that writing comes from writing….
Can you think all the good thoughts in advance?
The purpose of an outline is also to conserve your material, to distribute it evenly so that meaning discloses itself near the end.
Here’s a better approach.
Squander your material.
Don’t ration it, saving the best for last.
You don’t know what the best is.
Or the last.
Use it up.
There’s plenty more where that came from.
You won’t make new discoveries until you need them.
There’s little actual logic in good writing.
There’s a current of thoughts and ideas and observations.
Some may be linked by evidence.
One point may substantiate or corroborate another.
But what passes for logic or argument is usually little more than a succession of ideas
Connected mostly be proximity and analogy.
Writing doesn’t prove anything,
And it only rarely persuades.
It does something much better.
It shares your interest in what you’ve noticed.
It reports on the nature of your attention.
It suggests the possibilities of the world around you.
The evidence of the world as it presents itself to you.
Proof is for mathematicians.
Logic is for philosophers.
We have testimony.
One purpose of writing—its central purpose—is to offer your testimony
About the character of existence at this moment.
It will be part of your job to say how things are,
To attest to life as it is.
This will feel strange at first.
You’ll wonder whether you’re allowed to say things that sound
Not merely observational but true,
And not only true in carefully framed, limited circumstances,
But true for all of us and, perhaps, for all time.
Who asked you to say how things are?
Where do you get the authority to do any of this?
The answer is yours to find.
Nearly everything you’ve been taught about writing
Assumes that the reader is plodding at best,
Always distracted and needing a surfeit of superficial cleverness
To keep his head pointed toward the text.
You’ll find that assumption all around you.
We remove the unfamiliar words for him
So he’ll never have the chance to learn them.
We over-reason for him, filling our prose with approximations of logic,
So he’ll feel he’s had a good think.
The ordinary reader—the ordinary audience—is a barren conceit.
It guarantees a shared mediocrity.
Don’t preconceive the reader’s limitations.
They’ll become your own.
To write well, it isn’t enough for you to read differently.
Imagine the reader reading differently too.
Alive to the movement of language
And the qualities of writing that depend
On an unspoken understanding between writer and reader:
Wit, irony, inference, and implication.
Imagine a reader you can trust.