Monday 18 April 2011

The power of the word

I was taught to read by my mother before I started school at the age of five. All my life I’ve been a passionate reader, moving from one thing to another, one genre to another. With reading I came to writing, something I’ve also been doing since an early age. Blogging for me is simply an extension of the dairies and journals I have been keeping since I was six years old.

From time to time I look back on some of these, a funny and heart-warming experience. It’s easy to see that the quality of my writing is closely related to the course of my reading. In other words, I was learning by example, learning that there is no mystery to good prose – it’s a craft, that’s all, a craft perfected as one comes to understand words and how words are best used.

Now I come to tackle one key question, put in discussion quite recently: is it possible to be a writer and not a reader? Is it possible, to put it another way, to produce decent prose by learning from media other than the published word? Do things like audio books or watching news channels help in producing a good writer?

For me the answer is simple; no, of course they can’t. Audio media and personal interactions might help improve skills in conversation and communication but they cannot, by their own, help a person to become a good writer. Only an understanding of the forms of language, how language is structured and how words are used can do that; only reading can do that. Any fool can write; it takes discipline to write well. The more one reads the better one writes, not just learning how it is done well, but seeing how it is done badly.

I’ve had so many influences, so many writers I have learned from when it comes to good English usage and points of style. I have particular admiration for Jonathan Swift and George Orwell, the best essayists and satirists in the English language. Orwell’s Why I Write and Politics and the English Language deserve special mention for their clarity and example. The latter, in particular, should be compulsory reading for all those in public life, a suggestion I have made on previous occasions.

When I’m writing I have Orwell’s admonitions at the front of my mind, his warnings against the use of stale phrases, ugly compound words and dead metaphors. If one begins writing simply by listening, listening to news media or information channels, one is liable to pick up every sin against language that Orwell identifies, with some contemporary horrors added for good effect!

There us another thing here. The best writers, the greatest writers, are also psychologists, reading the character of others through the written word alone. I’m thinking of James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses, specifically the section headed Oxen of the Sun, where he moves seamlessly through the various styles of other authors, recreating them in words, dipping from his own personality into the personality of Charles Dickens, to take but one example, so different in every conceivable way. It’s impressive, a tour de force in imagination and art, clearly based on a perfect love and understanding of prose, the inner mysteries of the word.

I’m not going to touch on the technical aspects of writing, notably parsing and good grammar, other than to say that these cannot be picked up other than through reading, understanding what is right and what is wrong, where a comma comes and where it does not. But if you want to follow this route I would suggest starting with Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which provides no better illustration of the power of punctuation!

So, if anyone says that they have seen good writing produced by somebody who is not a reader ask to see the writing and judge for yourself. If it is good I can guarantee you that the writer in question is almost certainly a liar.


  1. The concepts of reading and writing are apparently inseparable as I have to read from a dictionary to write.

  2. I agree with you, ANA. A good writer must be a good reader as well. With me, I can feel the rhythm in a sentence, paragraph, page; and if it's off, I sense it as a dissonance, a disturbance in the wa, as the Japanese would say, & have to re-work the offending phrase until it glides or I'll get no rest.

  3. Written languages have - I understand - more complex structures than languages which are just spoken. They have subordinate clauses, for example. I suspect the new technologies are producing decreasingly literate generations who will not be able to cope with the more complex structures of 'literary' language.

  4. haha.. Certainly a liar?? :)
    What a perfect answer.!
    I am highly impressed.. :)

  5. "I was taught to read by my mother before I started school at the age of five."

    What started at the age of five? Being taught to read or school? It's amazing that we find such a sentence at the beginning of a post about good writing.

  6. don't see why the writer is being blamed for somebody else saying he's good. also not sure what you mean by "clarity and example." i agree with everything else, though. good post!

  7. You are right, your voice is very clear in your writing. I enjoy reading it.

  8. "If it is good I can guarantee you that the writer in question is almost certainly a liar."

    What about the great songwriters of Country music? I'm thinking Charlie and Ira Louvin, Townes Von Zandt, Hank Williams Sr., Loretta Lynn among others. Also, have you heard of cowboy poetry?

    Still, I will agree that a certain kind of writer (and you are of this kind Ana) does have to be well-read, and without that certain kind of writer, the full tapestry of literature cannot be made.

  9. Hi Ana,

    Very well stated (as always)! I remember your having mentioned Orwell in the past, and maybe this time I will actually look into the works you reference. :-) I hadn't heard of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves before, but the title alone is curious enough to make me investigate that one as well.

    I've been recently reading Anthony Trollope's autobiography, and was reminded that, without exception, autobiographies of famous writers have always fascinated me. How they go about their business, how they became skilled, how they improved, etc. Wonderful stuff.

    I still have yet to read Ulysses(!) - I know, I know; flagrant cultural literacy foul - and must get to it someday. I've only read Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I loved in spite of the opening paragraphs... :-)


  10. BOb, you put it so well. I feel exactly the same. I savour words.

  11. Mark, I just hope Text Speak is not the wave of the future. If anything it's even worse than New Speak!

  12. M, the sentence is unexceptional and the meaning obvious. It’s rather a pity that you can’t construe it properly. But there is more here, is there not? I do not mind criticism. What I do mind mean-spirited pettiness, which you clearly have in abundance.

  13. Ketaki, thank you so much for the inspiration. :-)

  14. E, I see it just as a hypothetical case. No matter; I'm glad you liked the post. :-)

  15. Meredith, thanks. You have also given me inspiration, as you will discover in a bit. :-)

  16. Jeremy, I don’t know these people, or their songs. What I would say as a general principle, though, is that song-writing is a case apart, where the words may be driven by the music, where good prose and strict literacy is not absolutely necessary. “We don’t need no education”, the British band Pink Floyd sang in one of their songs. The rhythm’s good; the assonance is good; but it’s still illiterate.

  17. Jay, now here’s a coincidence: I’m now in what I’m referring to as my Trollope period! At present I’m working my way through the Palliser novels before moving on to the Chronicles of Barsetshire. There they are, all lined up in the shelf above my desk, staring at me balefully, patiently waiting their turn. :-)

  18. Yesterday I was ensnared in tax forms and had no time to comment. There are over 71,000 pages in the US Tax Code - and an army of accountants and lawyers larger than the US military to interpret it. Is it any wonder the world of finance is in such a mess?

    I agree with you to a point, but must point out that language long predates writing, and much of the world's great literature was poem and song for uncounted generations before anyone thought to write it down. Writing is the voice made solid. Though it enters our perception through the eye, it is both 'seen' and 'heard' within the mind, where it can trigger the experience of a vastly more complex cascade of associations and nuances than are present in the bare print. Or not.

    Yes, writing is a craft, not in the mundane sense, but in its greatest sense. The encapsulation of images, ideas, memories in a breath of air, transfigured to scratches in clay or to squiggles of soot on goatskin or papyrus and passed across time and space to other eyes and minds far removed . . . that is a great magic that has built empires and recorded their fall.

    There is no other wand that carries so much power as the pen. One might almost fear to pick it up.

  19. It is indeed. I'm (sadly) near the end of his autobiography and he's mentioned Phineas and Phineas Redux. AND Plantagenet Palliser was introduced in the first (and thus far only - soon to be remedied) Trollope novel that I've read, The Small House at Allington, although he had little to do with that story...


  20. influences are certainly very important, but i think the deciding factor for a good writer is come from inside, that innate "talent" on thinking and expressing with words articulately, which you certain possess.

  21. I should say, also, that it was YOU who led me - indirectly - to Trollope, as his The Small House at Allington was what the heroine of William Trevor's short story, "After Rain" was reading on her holiday... :-)


  22. Writing is a craft and as such, must be constantly nurtured, nourished and developed by anyone who aims to be a good writer. Reading is essential in this, but it is how you read, not what or how much. I know intelligent people who are voracious readers, yet cannot write for toffee. I am a fan of self-help books of the Lynn Truss type. Among many, I would cite the Economist Style Guide as a very useful tool. Simon Heffer's recent book is unfortunately more schoolmasterly than masterly, unfortunately. George Orwell, in my view, is probably technically and stylistically the best writer in the English language ever. All would-be writers should read, at the very least, Why I Write.

  23. Jay, apart from fall in love for the first time! I've almost finished Phineas Finn, after which comes The Eustace Diamonds, the third in the series. I'm so glad to have headed you on this path. :-)

  24. Yun Yi, you are tremendously kind. :-)

  25. LH,oh, absolutely. I wasn't for a moment suggesting an instrumental link between quantity of reading and quality of writing. It's possible to read heaps and still be a rotten writer.

  26. I was a poet. That was why I failed.
    My faith in this chimera brought an end
    To all my father's hopes. In later years,
    Now old and ill, he asked me once again
    To carry on the firm, I still refused.
    And now when I behold fresh-published, new,
    A further volume of my verse, I see
    His kind grey eyes look woundedly at mine,
    I see his workman seeking other jobs,
    And that red granite obelisk that marks
    The family grave in Highgate Cemetery
    Points an accusing finger at sky.

    (Sir John Betjeman. Summoned by Bells. John Murray, 1960).

    A treasury of words is always handy in any situation. Indeed the most perfervid of enthusiasts with a passion for words like our mutual selves, treasure a jittery delight in reading a thesaurus or dictionary, as if it were a novel about words instead of a source of reference. Arthur Scargill wrote that his father read the dictionary every day: 'He says your life depends on your power to master words.'

    Perhaps this obsession for words can best be illustrated in the case of poets. The writer W.H Auden used volume I of the Oxford English Dictionary as a chair cushion at his dinner table, Plath and other poets are known to have ransacked their thesauruses and dictionaries. Not for ideas, but for words that were, so to speak, on their tips of their minds.

    Auden expressed it thus:

    How can I know what I think till I see what I say? A poet writes 'the chestnut's comfortable root', and then changes this to 'the chestnut's customary root'. In this alteration, there is no question of replacing one emotion by another, or of strengthening an emotion, but of discovering what the emotion is. The emotion is unchanged, but waiting to be identified, like a telephone number one can't remember. '8357. No that's not it. 8557, 8457, no, it's on the tip of my tongue, wait a moment, I've got it, 8657. That's it."

    (W. H. Auden. 'Squares & Oblongs.' 1948. The Complete Works of W. H. Auden. Edited by Edward Mendelson. Faber & Faber, 2002.345).

    I have immortalised Lynne Truss’ Eats Shoots & Leaves in my poem 'Ophiuchos' as a (not too) hidden reference!

    I have been keeping a journal for the last 2 decades. I have also noticed that my writing is closely related to the course of my reading. The greatest writer in the west is Shakespeare who was not extremely literate. The greatest book of the east was revealed/inspired to one who could not write or read at all.

    You may find interesting my
    adaptatation of an ode by the Urdu poet Parveen Shakir of how the revelation of Allah first came to Muhammad ﷺ. It is uncannily identical to how the English poet Cædmon was first inspired.

    Also, here are 2 related blogs. From
    Hollace M Metzger and my friend Jen Campbell who writes because she's 'not supposed to be able to.'

  27. Rehan, I'm in a rush at the moment but I will check out your links later today. Thank so much.