Writing tips from Teilhard de Chardin

Lately I read a collection of letters by the priest, palaeontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, sent to his cousin Marguerite Teillard-Chambon during World War I, where he acted as stretcher-bearer on the front lines and won several medals for bravery and service.

The letters were translated from the French by René Hague and published in English as The Making of a Mind: Letters from a SoldierPriest 1914–1919. They show a side of Teilhard I had not previously seen, having read only some of his books on evolution and theology.

Teilhard’s letters include this passage of writing advice he offered his cousin, who had sent him one of her lectures for comment:

a) Keep an eye on improving the style, not only by avoiding jarring phonetic effects and repetitions of words – but by enriching your vocabulary, by getting more depth into your wording: there are verbs that are now quite colourless (to be, to do, to have), for which as often as not one can find more expressive and vigorous alternatives. But you know that better than I do.

b) Avoid any obscurity in phraseology, ambiguity in the use of demonstrative adjectives and pronouns (this, that, its, etc.).

c) Try to mark out clearly the various steps in your thoughts by means of transitions that don’t simply connect, but, if I may put it so, synthesize – summing up in a single line both what you’ve just said and what you’re passing on to, – showing just how far you’ve reached and what the next step is going to be. This is a much more difficult art to acquire and presupposes, of course, great precision and maturity in the formation of one’s ideas. But it’s essential if the thread of your exposition is not to be lost in a maze of quotations. (Nieuport-Ville, 27 March 1916.)

Obviously these lines were tailored to the particular text Teilhard had in hand, but some of the advice applies broadly.

He cautions against repetition, but the technique is not always to be deplored; there is a great difference between repetition deployed with skill for rhetorical effect and repetition that arises by dint of laziness, haste, or lack of imagination or lexical resources. The former compels; the latter fatigues.

As an editor and proofreader, I see a lot of writing that relies heavily on hackneyed phrases and humdrum words, and which may be improved considerably by a wider vocabulary put to discriminating use.*

We all have crutch words and constructions that we apply too often and too easily when we’re building paragraphs. Whether they’re in general use or uniquely ours, most of the time we’re not even aware of our dependence on them, and it takes another pair of eyes (a helpful reader’s or a good editor’s) to point it out.

If you must dip into a thesaurus for synonyms, choose words you already know well and are confident will achieve the desired semantic and stylistic effects, or you may muddle your meaning. Synonyms are by and large near-synonyms, so this kind of substitution should be measured and informed: never casual, mechanical, or speculative.

This is just one reason reading widely, avidly and attentively so benefits your writing: the more genres to which you expose yourself, the more words and styles arc into your orbit and gradually become familiar enough to trust to personal use. Then you will have your “expressive and vigorous alternatives”.


* You could make the case that hackneyed phrase is itself a hackneyed phrase, a victim of its own success. Ditto victim of its own success.

9 Responses to Writing tips from Teilhard de Chardin

  1. John Cowan says:

    Minor copy-editor-ly note: Traditionally, de before a bare surname is omitted unless (a) the name is monosyllabic (as in de Gaulle) or (b) the person is from a non-francophone country (as in de Valera, or the American variants de Camp, De Camp, DeCamp, Decamp). Also, unless for legal purposes, or if absolutely required for disambiguation, it’s normal to use only one given name, usually but not always the first. So Teilhard de Chardin on first reference, Chardin thereafter (or Father Teilhard if you are so minded).

    This does not apply to le, la, du, de la, which are always kept.

  2. Stan says:

    Thanks for the helpful note, John. I’ve decided Teilhard would be the most appropriate way to refer to him here, and have updated accordingly. I didn’t know that about monosyllabic names.

  3. If I can voice a dissenting copy-editing opinion, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s surname is ‘Teilhard de Chardin,’ not ‘de Chardin,’ and therefore not subject to the convention mentioned. Having read and written fairly extensively on him, I can also say with some authority that in the world of theology, where the majority of publication on him is done, his surname is conventionally rendered intact (despite the usage in his Wikipediae article).

  4. wisewebwoman says:

    Thanks for this Stan, I can well use reminders such as these.

  5. Stan says:

    Matthew: Thanks for your contribution; constructive dissent is always welcome. I revisited some sources that refer to him, and find that after mention of his full name, Teilhard is typically the form then adopted. My use of “de Chardin” was inattentive.

    WWW: You’re very welcome. I think (b) is especially useful; anaphoric ambiguity is fairly common in unedited text.

  6. John Cowan says:

    Matthew: Thanks!

  7. Claude says:

    In my world, Teilhard is a spiritual hero. I read everything from him but that one book. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. He certainly applied the principles mentioned to his own writing. I just get carried away when I enter his books. Not only for the hope (and for me the certitude) he gives of humanity reaching fullness, but for the magnificence and the elegance of his French voice. Is he as good in English? I will find out this week. Out of curiosity, I have borrowed “The Phenomenon of Man” at the library. I was such a breath of fresh air when I read it in my long ago youth. And it kept me going all those years without despair, in spite of all my flaws.. Maybe, even in English, it will renew my spirit for a few more months, or years, towards my perfect Omega Point.

  8. Claude says:

    Correction: IT was such a breath of fresh air…..

  9. Stan says:

    Claude: Teilhard has a way of sweeping the reader along in his optimistic speculations. I get the impression he has been well served by translators; the books I’ve read convey his points subtly and at times poetically. He’s probably not quite as good in English as he is in the original French, but I’m confident you’ll savour the return to his prose, in either language.

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