Steven Pinker on rewriting

September 13, 2017

When you want to improve a piece of writing, showing it to someone (such as a beta reader) is often a good idea. This doesn’t apply to everything, obviously, but it’s especially valuable for text intended for publication, or when you’re concerned about how the audience will react to what you’ve written.

Steven Pinker, in The Sense of Style (2014), recommends that you also ‘show a draft to yourself’ – preferably having spent time away from it. This too is sound advice. It’s not new, but I like the slant Pinker puts on it, that you should show it to yourself as though you were another person, which, in a sense proportionate to the time that has passed, you are. He says you may find yourself wondering, as he does:

‘What did I mean by that?’ or ‘How does this follow?’ or, all too often, ‘Who wrote this crap?’

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Elena Ferrante delaying the verb

September 9, 2017

A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it. —Gertrude Stein

Writers are often advised to introduce the main verb of a sentence early. It’s generally good advice. Delaying the verb by prefacing it with subordinate clauses, adjuncts, participle phrases and assorted throat-clearing puts a cognitive load on readers. They must hold it all in their short-term memory until the verb arrives and they find out what frame the extra information fits into.

This is a particular problem in nonfiction prose, where communicating facts is a primary aim. I see it regularly in texts I edit: long lists and unpredictable subclauses pile up before I learn what the sentence is even about. With a little rearrangement the main verb can be brought forward, and the point is made much more direct and comprehensible.

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Reading coincidences: geese edition

August 5, 2017

Konrad Lorenz’s books always have wonderful anecdotes about animals, and On Aggression (1963, tr. Marjorie Latzke) is no exception. One chapter describes habit formation in geese, a greylag goose named Martina in particular, whom Lorenz had reared and who had imprinted on him. Lorenz writes:

University Paperback book cover on Konrad Lorenz's 'On Aggression', featuring a large b&w illustration of a snarling tiger's headIn her earliest childhood, Martina had acquired a fixed habit: when she was about a week old I decided to let her walk upstairs to my bedroom instead of carrying her up, as until then had been my custom. Greylag geese resent being touched and it frightens them, so it is better to spare them this indignity if possible.

Pleased by this information, and by how it was phrased, I tweeted it. Later, after sharing another excerpt on geese behaviour, I added a hashtag:

And there the idea would have remained, except that the next book I picked up, Molly Keane’s Loving and Giving, had its own geese tips.

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Euphemisms for the stomach

July 31, 2017

Sometimes we use language to talk about something without referring to it directly – for fear of flouting social or moral convention, for fear of the thing itself, to conceal and deceive, and so on. In everyday discourse much of this falls under politeness and pragmatics: certain domains are taboo to whatever degree, so we employ euphemisms to avoid crossing a line of what is considered appropriate in the context.

Book cover of 'Loving and Giving' by Molly Keane, publisher AbacusThe last time I wrote about euphemisms on Sentence first, it was to share commentary in Molly Keane’s novel Good Behaviour on the many ways to refer to the toilet without mentioning the toilet or even the bathroom.

In Loving and Giving, another bittersweet comic gem by Keane, the area of taboo avoidance is the middle anatomy. The novel follows an Irish girl, Nicandra (named by her father after a beloved horse), who is eight years old when we first meet her. Her Aunt Tossie lives in the big house with them, and Nicandra goes to her room one morning:

Her nightdress was nothing like as pretty as Maman’s, no lace, only broderie anglaise the same as edged Nicandra’s drawers (“knickers” was a common word, not to be used. For the same reason, if you had a pain it was in “your little inside”, not in your stomach – and there were no words beyond “down there” to describe any itch or ailment in the lower parts of your body).

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F.L. Lucas on style: ‘personality clothed in words’

July 19, 2017

Two of my favourite books on writing have the same one-word title: Style. Years ago I shared an essay by the author of the older Style, Frank Laurence Lucas, and having recently revisited his book, I’ll post a few excerpts.

First published in 1955, Lucas’s Style has dated in certain respects (try to ignore the generic male pronouns), but it is still full of sound advice and insights on the art and mechanics of composition. So then: What is style? Lucas describes it as:

a means by which a human being gains contact with others; it is personality clothed in words, character embodied in speech. If handwriting reveals character, style reveals it still more – unless it is so colourless and lifeless as not really to be a style at all. The fundamental thing, therefore, is not technique, useful though that may be; if a writer’s personality repels, it will not avail him to eschew split infinitives, to master the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’, to have Fowler’s Modern English Usage by heart. Soul is more than syntax. If your readers dislike you, they will dislike what you say.

Three chapters are titled ‘Courtesy to Readers’. The first, on clarity, concludes with a note on how to achieve it:

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Nora and James Joyce: making women’s speech the universal tongue

July 2, 2017

Maybe writing about typos in Ulysses triggered it, but I finally took Brenda Maddox’s book Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce off the shelf. It’s an exceptional study, rich in insight and research: highly recommended to anyone interested in her life, personality, and relationships, and in the author himself.

Maddox defends Nora soundly against a tendency in some Joyce scholarship to caricature her as ignorant or even illiterate. The scarcity of Nora’s own letters for some decades didn’t help this perception, nor did her famous dislike of Ulysses. She appreciated its value, but ‘her acceptance was always tempered by her dismay at its obscenity’, Maddox writes. When Joyce complained that Wagner, whom Nora loved, was obscene, Nora pointed irrefutably at Ulysses.

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Lewis Carroll, prescriptivist

June 15, 2017

Lewis Carroll was an enthusiastic and prolific letter-writer. On New Year’s Day in 1861, aged 28, he began to keep a register of the letters he sent, and the last one it records is number 98,721. The full tally, forever unknown, is probably much higher.

The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll (Macmillan Press, 1982), edited by Morton Cohen, has some items of interest on the subject of language use. For example: Writing to Edith Rix on 15 January 1886, Carroll teases her about a spelling error and about her choice of preposition after different: she uses to, but he favours – insists on – from:

Now I come to your letter dated December 22nd, and must scold you for saying that my solution of the problem was “quite different to all common ways of doing it”: if you think that’s good English, well and good; but I must beg to differ to you, and to hope you will never write me a sentence similar from this again. However, “worse remains behind”; and if you deliberately intend in future, when writing to me about one of England’s greatest poets, to call him “Shelly”, then all I can say is, that you and I will have to quarrel! Be warned in time.

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