LOL—Leonard, Orwell, and Lewis on writing

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While I’m always reading about writing, or trying to learn about writing by reading, I have most benefited and gotten the most food for thought from the lists of personal rules and guidelines great writers have set for themselves. While it’s possible to divine a writer’s personal rules simply by reading their work—who didn’t realize, before his Oprah interview, that Cormac McCarthy wouldn’t touch a semicolon?—I’m always interested to see a writer lay out his or her rules for others.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’ve finally gotten around to reading some Elmore Leonard. I recall reading Leonard’s celebrated ten rules for writing in college, when I didn’t even know who he was, and I recall objecting to several of them. Older and wiser now, and finally familiar with his work—in the last month I’ve read Valdez is Coming, Freaky Deaky, Last Stand at Saber River, Hombre, Out of Sight, and the short story “Three-Ten to Yuma”—I can see the wisdom of his rules and the way he used them to form his writing. I also appreciate, based on interviews I’ve watched with him before he died, how undogmatic he was about the ten rules—a trait that we’ll see he has in common with these other two writers.

Leonard’s rules were originally published in The New York Times as “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle” in 2001. You can read the whole article online at the NYT—or the Guardian if that’s paywalled—but here are the ten rules themselves:

  1. Never open a book with weather.

  2. Avoid prologues.

  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

  5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

“My most important rule,” Leonard goes on, “is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Again, I appreciate how unassuming Leonard is about his rules—they’re his rules, he reiterates, not universally applicable Newtonian laws of good writing. “There are certain writers,” he says in this interview from 2002, “who can write all the weather they want.” It’s all about proportion, achieving a desired effect, and getting out of your own way.

To move from fiction to non-fiction, George Orwell, in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” which I’ve blogged about a couple times before, similarly concludes with a list of six rules that should govern any writing that aims at arguing a point and telling the truth, particularly in the political essays Orwell mastered.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Again, a final law that sums up the rest, and again, an insistence that “one could keep all of [these rules] and still write bad English.” Rules are important, but the rules won’t save your writing.

Finally, to turn to a writer superbly skilled at both fiction and non-fiction, CS Lewis actually provided guidelines or rules on a couple of occasions, two of which are collected in this 2010 post from Justin Taylor. From a letter to a young American fan in 1956:

  1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

  2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

  3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”

  4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.”

  5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

And from his final interview in the spring of 1963:

The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that.

The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him.

I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the reader will most certainly go into it.

You can see a variety of concerns in these lists of ten, six, and five respectively, but what do Leonard, Orwell, and Lewis share?

First, I see a particular concern with clarity. Several rules relate to this, from Lewis’s insistence on concrete rather than abstract to Orwell’s warning against foreign vocabulary. I’ve heard Orwell accused of being a “linguistic chauvanist” because of this; what he’s concerned with is clarity, concreteness, and the avoidance of abstraction. Bureaucratese and journalistic flimflam tend to shroud things in a luminous fog of latinate jargon. Lewis’s example of “mortality rose” is a good example of what Orwell, who had plenty of experience with socialist and Communist verbal shenanigans, had in mind.

Second, I also see a related concern with directness. Leonard, as an author of fiction, is perhaps the best on this point. Whether avoiding clumsy, amateurish dialogue tags—one of the surest marks of the hack—or not bogging down the narrative in stylistic frippery or elaborate descriptions, his rules are all about his “attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing,” which extends even to the rules of grammar: “if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can't allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.” Orwell seconds that motion, explicitly advising the writer to “break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Orwell gives some of the most precisely mechanical advice in these three sets of rules, down to the old active-passive voice debate. Perhaps the biggest weakness of passive voice is that it doubles the grammatical logic of a sentence back on itself—in other words, it’s indirect. In Lewis’s deceptively simple formulation, write “exactly” what you want to say.

Third, all share a concern with what I’ll call liveliness. Orwell warns us away from cliche; Leonard shoos us away from long descriptions, unnecessary details about weather or setting, and any “part that readers tend to skip.” Not for nothing are cliches, in what is now a bit of a cliche itself, called “dead metaphors.” Clear, direct writing will have a living quality to it—the images will simply appear in your mind without coaxing. Witness Lewis’s image of driving sheep down a road.

Finally, I see these three writers, in the lack of dogmatism I’ve already noted on their part, trying to give advice but leaving open space for art. Despite their emphases on clarity and directness, all three are aware of the subjectivity of language and all three urge their readers to take care. They realize that all the sweat and blood a writer can possible pour out in pursuit of precision can still result in failure, and so they all conclude by saying: drop the rules when you need to. And you will need to.

Perhaps more later, and perhaps I could gloss a few of these things from examples of where I’ve tried—tried—to implement them in my own writing. For now, read these three lists of rules, read these three writers to see where their rules led them, and learn.

Most of What Follows is True

Fisherman drying cod in St. Johns, Newfoundland, c. 1900.

Fisherman drying cod in St. Johns, Newfoundland, c. 1900.

I’ve posted before about the CBC Ideas Podcast, a series I discovered when they devoted two episodes to the Icelandic sagas. I hope they do more of those, but in the meantime I’ve listened to some very good episodes. One of the latest covers a topic near to my heart: historical fiction.

The talk, “Most of What Follows is True,” takes its name from the opening of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a film much loved by author Michael Crummey, the lecturer. Crummey, now a writer and an author of several historical novels, describes catching documentary on TV about the real Butch and Sundance, and his disappointment at the pair’s real-life fate: no Bolivian army, no glorious final moment, guns blazing, but a murder-suicide after being cornered in a miserable hovel. Which raises the question of what most means when you say that “most of what follows is true.”

Crummey, a native of Newfoundland on the Atlantic coast of Canada, considers several novels that purport to be historical but mangle the time and place in which they take place, and presents his own approach to some of his own writing. How much, he asks, does the historical novelist owe the past? How far should the historical novelist go in massaging history to make a compelling story? These are questions I’ve been thinking about for years and, with Griswoldville freshly released and still very much on my mind, I appreciated Crummey’s sensitive and thoughtful discussion, especially as it applied to accurately depicting a specific place and authentically evoking another time. Place and time are, of course, connected, since the past itself is a foreign country.

I’ve embedded Crummey’s talk in the post, above. It’s well worth your while to listen to! And do check him out on Goodreads. I’ll be looking for some of his work. River Thieves sounds particularly interesting.

Seinfeld and Dante on art

The New York Times as a fun, interesting Q&A with Jerry Seinfeld to promote the latest season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. It's short and worth reading for its own sake, but I wanted to draw attention to this passage.

New York Times: You turned down an offer from NBC of $5 million an episode to do one more season of “Seinfeld.” Nobody in TV has ever made even close to that money before or since. Did you ever second-guess that decision? 

The most important word in art is ‘proportion.’

Jerry Seinfeld: No. It was the perfect moment, and the proof that it was the right moment is the number of questions you’re still asking me about it. The most important word in art is “proportion.” How much? How long is this joke going to be? How many words? How many minutes? And getting that right is what makes it art or what makes it mediocre.

That's dynamite artistic advice right in the middle of his answer. Proportion. No matter what your field or medium, proportion is key. He's absolutely right and, as he points out, his show has the legacy to prove it. 

Consider my own favorite sitcom, The Office, which outlasted its best material by several years. What was funny in small doses early on dominated the show by the middle of its run and could only get wilder in its quest for more laughs, with diminishing returns. By season six, the characters were wildly out of proportion, Flanderized caricatures, and the plots spent disproportionate time on ludicrous side stories. And it lasted another three seasons. 

Seinfeld's insight jibes with something I read long, long ago and have returned to many times to guide and correct my own work. In explaining Dante's art in constructing the Comedy, translator John Ciardi wrote that "Poetry is, among other things, the art of knowing what to leave out." Throwing in the kitchen sink, stuffing your work, can be the equivalent of white noise unless you have a good sense of proportion. It's hard to think of a literary locale more crowded than Dante's hell, but thanks to his gift of proportion you never lose sight of his purpose as an artist. Like Dante—like Seinfeld—have to develop a good sensibility of what does and doesn't belong. See also "Omit needless words" and "Murder your darlings." 

And of course, art being art, there are always good reasons to violate these rules—again, in the interest of maintaining proportion. To give Orwell the last word on this topic: "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous." Don't let even grammar throw you out of proportion.

Chesterton (and Orwell) on careless language

From "New Religion and New Irreligion," an April 4, 1908 piece in the Illustrated London News:

 
It is difficult to believe that people who are obviously careless about language can really be very careful about anything else.
 

In its fuller context: 

Our generation professes to be scientific and particular about the things it says; but unfortunately it is never scientific and particular about the words in which it says them. It is difficult to believe that people who are obviously careless about language can really be very careful about anything else. If an astronomer is careless about words, one cannot help fancying that he may be careless about stars. If a botanist is vague about words, he may be vague about plants. The modern man, regarding himself as a second Adam, has undertaken to give all the creatures new names; and when we discover that he is silly about the names, the thought will cross our minds that he may be silly about the creatures. And never before, I should imagine, in the intellectual history of the world have words been used with so idiotic an indifference to their actual meaning. A word has no loyalty; it can be betrayed into any service or twisted to any treason. 

Chesterton goes on to give examples, 110 years old now, of one of my least favorite moves in the political rhetoric playbook: claiming one's position is the truer form of one's opponents' position, e.g. this recent op-ed asserting that supporting abortion is more pro-life than opposing it. This is surely an iteration of "no true Scotsman," but if it's been named I'm unaware of it. "Of all the expressions of our current indifference to the meaning of the words," Chesterton writes later, "I think that the most irritating is this cool substitution of one kind of definition for another." That, as it happens, does have a name

Before moving on to the religious controversy surrounding the "New Theology" of R.J. Campbell, Chesterton concludes:

 
The fact is, that all this evasive use of words is unworthy of our human intellect.
 

"Mr. Campbell has excellent brains," Chesterton continues, "but thinks it more advanced and modern not to use them. . . . He is guided in his choice of phrases by mere aimless sentimentalism." We cheat ourselves when we cheat with our language. We were made for finer things. Our minds are precision instruments.

Chesterton here anticipates some of the arguments in Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language" by almost forty years. Writing in 1946, Orwell argued that "if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought," and devoted the bulk of his essay to examples which he surgically dissects. Compare: 

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

Slovenliness is a good word for it. Not chaos, not anarchy, but an utter "you know what I mean" indifference to good order–a linguistic dorm room. A pervasive slovenliness degrades not just political discourse but all communication today. I'm not talking about emojis, slang, and memes, but rather the intellectual path of least resistance onto which all of us route our thoughts, "gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug." The appeal, Orwell writes, is that this mode of communication, this way of thinking, is easy.

But will it lead us to truth?

Quick: What is the difference between a country and a nation? Between enhanced interrogation and torture? Between racism, prejudice, and bigotry? Between faith and a faith? What is love? What is violence? What does the word free mean in free speech, free country, free love, free willfree with any purchase?

A good visit with The Front Porch Show

Last week I had the pleasure of joining Aaron, Tombstone, and Just Jeff for two segments of their Front Porch Show, the weekly podcast about everything. Click through to listen at their website, or one of the several podcasting services they air on including Spotify and iTunes, or see the embedded Stitcher link below. We talked about historical movies—what makes them good, what makes them bad—my books, and especially what the life and death of Cicero can teach us about virtue in politics today (with all due caution, of course). Had a great time. Thanks for having me on the show!

Eliot on offensive content

In his essay "Dante" from The Sacred Wood, T.S. Eliot responds to people who object to Dante's vivid descriptions of the vile and disgusting, especially throughout Inferno:

 
The contemplation of the horrid or sordid or disgusting, by an artist, is the necessary and negative aspect of the impulse toward the pursuit of beauty.
 

Goodness never looks so good as it does when contrasted with evil. I think this is, at least in part, why we respond so strongly to self-sacrifice, heroism, and love in terrible circumstances.

Two years without snakes!

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This is a week of anniversaries. Ten years ago Wednesday I completed the rough draft of No Snakes in Iceland, my first published novel. Two years ago today, No Snakes in Iceland appeared for sale on Amazon. 

I'm still inexpressibly grateful for all those who helped me along the way, particularly those like my wife, Sarah, who encouraged me to get the book into a finalized form, to make it available, and to do so quickly. I'm also thankful for my readers, especially those who took the time to critique the book when it wasn't finished and those who have so generously reviewed it online since it came out. I appreciate you all; you've all been party to this blessing.

So, two years snake-free in Iceland! Have you read the book yet? If so, what did you think? If not, why not get a copy today?

Writing Rules

John J. Miller, who teaches journalism at Hillsdale College and hosts the excellent Bookmonger and Great Books podcasts, offers five pieces of writing advice inspired by great advice from other writers.

Be sure to follow Miller's links to Elmore Leonard's ten rules for writing and the great Orwell essay "Politics and the English Language," which is always worth a read. Orwell's final piece of advice is crucial.