‘my writing; a response to my critics
Downloadable Word document of this post is above.
In this post, I would like to consider and respond to criticisms of my writing which have been made by readers of this blog from time to time. In responding, I have used my own writing and writing of acknowledged masters as a basis for drawing conclusions about matters such as verbosity, big words versus little ones, simplicity versus complexity in style, supposed pomposity, when one is entitled to have an opinion, and so on. By explaining what I feel are legitimate reasons for writing the way I do, I hope to be able to shed some light on the writing process.
You have stated, “concision is a desideratum in writing.” Sounds pompous. Using “desideratum” is not as clear as saying “concision is essential to good writing.”
I stated, responding to one my critics, “Concision is a desideratum in writing.” The critic pounced on this. He said it sounded pompous and that it would have been clearer if I had said, “Concision is essential to good writing.”
English happens to have lots of fancy Latinate words. There is nothing wrong with using them when appropriate. Connotation as well as tone is important here. Desideratum and essential mean essentially the same thing, but they are not exact equivalents. The connotation I was striving for was embodied by the choice of a word meaning something that a writer seeks to achieve, a sort of authorial ideal.
Saying that concision is essential would not convey my meaning as well, since I happen to feel that while concision usually is desirable, it is not always essential. This point has been made by composition theorists such as Brooks Landon, a professor of English at the University of Iowa, who has stated, in a series of lectures for the Great Courses series, that “in many cases, we need to add words to improve our writing … rather than trying to pare our writing down to some kind of telegraphic minimum.” In view of this, I am wary of saying, as a general proposition, that concision is essential to, is a sine qua non of, good writing.
Words should be used carefully, of course, and more often than not, the plainest word is the best. But not always. My critic, in his eagerness to “lay down the law” in Strunk and White fashion, did not perceive that there may have been a good reason for my using the “fancy” word desideratum.
In a novel by Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience, the term “a porcine martyr” is used to describe a drowned pig. A barely educated woman character has been eagerly telling a story in which a pig which her husband was trying to get out of its pen was swept away by a deluge and drowned. Alcott’s use of the fancy phase is humorous — ironic; her wry authorial voice contrasts with the speaker’s raw narrative tone. The irony is clever and appropriate.
Sometimes, your writing appears to be pompous and self centered. The pomposity comes through in the frequent use of highfalutin outmoded phrases, such as “as it were” (usually adding no apparent value to whatever you are saying); or “may I interject a comment here?” (as if the reader were in a conversation with you).
The critic objected to my writing, in one of my posts, “may I interject a comment here?” He felt as if I were guilty of being supercilious. What the critic fails to appreciate is that I want the reader to get the feeling that we are having a conversation.
A conversational tone and the use of “highfalutin outmoded phrases” do not necessarily amount to pomposity. And, a conversational tone is often (depending upon context) desirable.
The critic thinks that by affecting to directly address the reader I am guilty of pomposity or conceit. It is conceit of a sort, a rhetorical conceit — or, more precisely, a rhetorical device.
The best writers often adopt a conversational tone. This is to be desired and is not an indication of affectation or pomposity.
Consider the following complex sentence of mine, from my post “how to FAIL in business (small businesses, that is)”:
There is something edifying, would you not agree? (it’s a basic human need), about having one’s personhood recognized and about being so acknowledged in a business establishment.
Note the deliberately conversational tone.
Similarly, in my post “I am not the center of the universe,” I address the reader directly, in the second person, as follows:
Did you ever have an experience in the course of life, at a particular moment on a particular day — something seemingly inconsequential — that permanently altered your fundamental outlook on life?
The intent is to draw the reader in, to suggest that perhaps the reader may have had a similar experience, which would help or encourage him or her to “get” the piece.
One has the feeling, with the best writers, that you, the reader, are being privileged by having a conversation with the writer, or, to put it another way, that the writer is conversing with you, his or her interlocutor. There is no off-putting pretense or stuffiness. And, the writing seems to flow naturally the same way a good conversationalist or raconteur can keep his or her listener riveted. It is not surprising that the best writers have often been good conversationalists and, plain and simple, good communicators. “Good writing invites interaction,” in the words of Professor Dorsey Armstrong in her series of lectures “Analysis and Critique: How to Engage and Write about Anything” for The Great Courses.
I want the reader to be able to feel that he can share and follow my thoughts and thinking. So, when I say “may I interject a comment here?” or “did you ever have such an experience?” I am inviting the reader in, so to speak, drawing him or her in, as Walt Whitman did when he would write, for example, in his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (addressing the reader in the second person), “Closer yet I approach you.”
And, in his great poem “Song of Myself,” Whitman says:
The boatmen and clam-diggers arose early and stopt for me,
I tuck’d my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a good time;
You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle.
Again using the second person and increasing the power and impact of the poem and its message by addressing the reader directly, as if it would have been possible for the reader to share the experience with him. He invites readers, current and future, to join him, figuratively, using a rhetorical conceit by which he fuses his personality and enthusiasm with an imagined reader’s.
Talking to your audience is not equivalent to talking down to them.
The following is an example of Charles Dickens addressing the reader directly in a fashion which suggests that he and the reader are having an actual exchange:
It was on a fine Sunday morning in the Midsummer time and weather of eighteen hundred and forty-four, my good friend, when—don’t be alarmed; not when two travellers might have been observed slowly making their way over that picturesque and broken ground by which the first chapter of a ‘Middle Aged’ novel [by which reference Dickens meant to evoke the typical opening of a historical novel in the manner of one by Sir Walter Scott, in which the narrator/observer would be seen viewing things from a distant vantage point with respect to space and time] is usually attained; but when an English travelling-carriage of considerable proportions, fresh from the shady halls of the Pantechnicon near Belgrave-square, London, was observed (by a very small French soldier; for I saw him look at it) to issue from the gate of the Hotel Meurice in the Rue Rivoli at Paris [by which assertions Dickens styles himself as a narrator observing things, as a journalist would be, at close range]. — Charles Dickens, The Daily News (London), January 21, 1844
If Dickens can do it, why can’t I?
Here is an example from the opening paragraph of George Gissing’s novel Workers in the Dawn:
Walk with me, oh reader, into Whitecross Street. It is Saturday night, the market-night of the poor; also the one evening in the week in which the weary toilers of our great city can devote to ease and recreation the sweet assurance of a morrow unenslaved. Let us see how they spend this ‘Truce of God;’ our opportunities will be of the best in the district we are entering.
Note how Gissing deliberately, at the very beginning, adopts a conversational tone, addresses the reader directly, which works and draws the reader in.
“By Jove” is an archaic word no other writer has used in a hundred years. You used it in the USA is the greatest country piece. The word “indeed” would have sufficed.
I used the expression “by Jove” in my post “the greatest country in the world.” The critic suggests the use of a more common word/expression and implies that I am putting on airs.
The word “indeed” could have sufficed, along with many other choices. The critic missed the point that words are used in context and must be taken that way. “By Jove” was used playfully by me for effect, not pompously. If you read the blog, you can see that I was almost making fun of myself, the jejune fellow with a new idea striking like a thunderbolt. In this context, “By Jove” is actually a better choice than the more neutral word indeed.
This is consistent with thoughts about writing that the composition theorist Richard A. Lanham expresses in his Style: An Anti-Textbook:
American pragmatism insists that words are for use, not enjoyment. … Surely we ought to move in the opposite direction from such moral earnestness, stressing not words as duty but words as play. …. “Speech in its essence,” Kenneth Burke tells us, “is not neutral”; it is full of feeling, attitude, emotion. Drain this out in the name of useful unmistakability and you end up with composition class prose, a dismal grayness.
Why not “indigenous” instead of “autochthonous” in the Dreiser post? The two words mean essentially the same thing and your readers would have more easily gotten your point with the more commonly used word.
To the critic’s “Why not,” I would reply: Why?
Words should be used carefully, of course, and more often than not, the plainest word is the best. But not always. The use of arcane or highfalutin words is not necessarily a sin.
Big words and archaic ones should not, a priori, be avoided. It depends on the context. An example would be my use of autochthonous to describe Theodore Dreiser as a writer in my post “On Reading Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.” It’s the perfect word. It takes years of reading and of looking up words to know and be able when appropriate to use such words.
Words are not equivalent and cannot be substituted, as is the case with substitution in an equation, as the critic seems to think. This was made clear by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the novel, a language, Newspeak, is invented that is intended to replace English, getting rid of supposedly superfluous words, so that a word such as bad would be replaced with ungood and, “if you want a stronger version of ‘good,’ [the character Syme tells Winston Smith] what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still.”
Similarly, consider a phrase from the New Testament (Matthew 7), as translated in The New English Bible: “do not throw your pearls to the pigs.” Do you think this is an improvement on The King James Version: “neither cast ye your pearls before swine”? I don’t. Yes, pigs and swine mean the same thing, and pigs is the commonly used word nowadays. But, the antiquated word sounds better, whereas the commonly used one makes the passage sound flat to the ear, if not idiotic, as if a rapper were saying it.
What my critic does not fully understand is that words are not only fun to use; they have an extra-literal dimension. It is not as if your journeyman writer is a sort of processor of words working on an assembly line, with the words being components or parts lined up on a “vocabulary conveyor belt” from which one selects words needed and slots them into the constituent piece (e.g., a sentence) in assembling the writer’s end product, a piece of prose. With the choice of words being dictated by some theoretical framework, so that the one chosen must be not only the closest fit conceptually but the most readily available. So that the writer selects the common word original because it is in the inventory, but is not allowed to deviate from “production constraints” and choose a less common word such as autochthonous.
The reality with the best writers, as they actually write, is that it is not a case of interchangeable parts. The writer should actually enjoy and exercise great freedom in choosing words. My ear told me that autochthonous was the right word. It is the one that came to me, and it fit perfectly.
Frequently, the phrases you use make you sound pompous. A good example is the ironic “sans redundancy” comment in one of your emails. Is there something wrong with the word “without”?
What I said, in response to a critic’s remarks about supposed pomposity in my writing, was that I promised henceforth to write “sans pedantry.” The French word sans (without) was used playfully by me. Using another word than the usual one unexpectedly can sometimes enliven a piece, amuse the reader, perhaps help to keep him or her awake, and sometimes help to emphasize or make a point. The critic was tone deaf and completely missed the irony.
Note that great writers sometimes use foreign words for no apparent reason. For example, there is a famous soliloquy in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (Act II, Scene 7), where Shakespeare describes old age, the final stage of life, as “second childishness, and mere oblivion,— / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” It has been said that Shakespeare himself wasn’t perfect. Was he guilty of showing off when he used sans?
Walt Whitman used foreign words for novelty and effect. For example, in the line “Give me faces and streets! give me these phantoms incessant and endless along the trottoirs [French for sidewalks; italics added]!” in his poem “Give Me The Splendid Silent Sun.” And, in “Song of Myself,” Whitman wrote: “no dainty dolce affetuoso I,” using Italian terms. Should he be accused of affectation? After all, he could have said: “I am not an effete snob.”
As James Perrin Warren points out in his book Walt Whitman’s Language Experiment, Whitman in his poems used the following foreign borrowings: kosmos, debouch, Americanos, Libertad, programme, philosoph, finale, evangel-poem, en-masse, omnes, camerado, ma femme, ensemble, adobie, sierras, dolce affettuoso, vistas, and arriere.
And in Whitman’s poem “Song of the Open Road,” we find the line: Allons! whoever you are come travel with me! [italics added].
Here’s an example of me doing the same thing in one of my posts, “writers: walkers”: “I wrote that “walking, as is well known, is conducive to thinking and creativity, which is why so many writers and intellectuals have always been walkers.” And then said, “Por favor, read on!” I used the Spanish por favor (meaning please, or kindly) for no special reason other than variety. And, perhaps, to stimulate the reader, to wake him or her up!
Your writing is laden with filler phrases such as “so to speak,” “say,” “as it were,” etc.
Qualifiers are not necessarily bad. They actually, quite often, serve a purpose, syntactically speaking.
As it were is neither pompous nor superfluous. It is a qualifier that conveys the idea that an assertion should be taken in a certain sense — not exactly or precisely — as, for example, in the clause they discussed areas that had been, as it were, pushed aside in previous discussions.
As it were means in a way, or in a certain sense, but not literally. It is used by a writer who wants to be less precise. (So to speak is an equivalent phrase which I also often use.) A writer uses as it were to make what is being stated less definite, to avoid absurdities in meaning if the statement were taken literally. An example would be the following statement by Henry David Thoreau in Walden: “I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.”
As it were is not a highfalutin, outmoded, or superfluous phrase.
Here are a few more examples of acknowledged masters using as it were:
“… I confess I once or twice fancied that I caught glimpses of bliss round the corner, as it were; but, before I could decide, the glimpses vanished, and I was very sure I was conceited coxcomb to think it for a moment.” — Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience
“The things he invented were as real to [Balzac] as the things he knew, and his actual experience is overlaid with a thousand thicknesses, as it were, of imaginary experience.” — Henry James, “Honoré de Balzac,” in The Art of Criticism: Henry James on the Theory and the Practice of Fiction
“In general, one’s memories of any period must necessarily weaken as one moves away from it. One is constantly learning new facts, and old ones have to drop out to make way for them. … But it can also happen that one’s memories grow sharper after a long lapse of time, because one is looking at the past with fresh eyes and can isolate and, as it were, notice facts which previously existed undifferentiated among a mass of others.” — George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys …”
“The most entertaining of these numbers have always been burlesques of bourgeois musical taste, which were the more charming for their being purged, as it were, of bitterness by the optimism of the final patriotic and military passages.” — Virgil Thomson, “Shostakovich’s Seventh,” New York Herald Tribune, October 18, 1942
And, in a book review of mine, published in The New York Sun, I wrote: “In true Johnsonian spirit, [the author] has mined every conceivable scrap of information about [the subject of his biography], bringing him as it were back to life.” Should my editor have blue-penciled “as it were”?
So to speak is another qualifier that I often use which the critics of my writing object to, finding it to be another filler phrase that amounts to padding. An example would be my post “I am not the center of the universe,” in which I wrote: “One should not assume that people one meets in public, so to speak, are that interested in or focused upon you.”
The same observations apply here.
Similarly, in a blog post of mine about Israel, “a better, stronger country?” I used the often overused filler phrase the fact that:
I have — politically naive as I am — been harboring a thought. As follows: That if Israel absorbed the population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and became a true democracy, notwithstanding the fact that Arabs would predominate population-wise, something miraculous would happen.
The fact that seems to work here, notwithstanding the fact that (!) Strunk and White and my high school English teacher would not have hesitated to edit it out. It acts as a sort of “divider.” Sometimes the writer and reader need to be able to pause and “catch their breath.”
My guess is that a high school English teacher would do a good bit of editing on some of your longer posts. Some of your posts could be shortened without losing context or texture or meaning.
I would tend to respond to this comment by saying: Shrinkage may or may not be desirable. It depends.
In his series of lectures for the Great Courses, “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft,” Professor Brooks Landon says:
Unless the situation demands otherwise, sentences that convey more information are more effective than those that convey less. Sentences that anticipate and answer more questions that a reader might have are better than those that answer fewer questions. Sentences that bring ideas and images into clearer focus by adding more useful details and explanation are generally more effective than those that are less clearly focused and that offer fewer details. In practice, this means that I generally value longer sentences over shorter sentences as long as the length accomplishes some of those important goals I’ve just mentioned.
Many of us have been exposed over the years to the idea that effective writing is simple and direct, a term generally associated with Strunk and White’s legendary guidebook The Elements of Style, or we remember some of the slogans from that book, such as, “Omit needless words.” … [Stunk concluded] with this all important qualifier: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.” [italics added] … Strunk’s concern is specifically with words and phrases that do not add propositions to the sentence [e.g., “owing to the fact that” instead of “since”].” …
[S]imple does not mean simplistic. Direct does not mean short. And, simple and direct does not mean that we should all write like Ernest Hemingway in a hurry. “Omit needless words” is great advice, but not when it gets reduced to the belief that shorter is always better, or that “needless” means any word without which the sentence can still make sense. …
Strunk and White do a great job of reminding us to avoid needless words, but they don’t begin to consider all of the ways in which more words might actually be needed. … [I]n many cases, we need to add words to improve our writing … rather than trying to pare our writing down to some kind of telegraphic minimum.
There is a pleasure, as the critic Kenneth Burke notes in his book on rhetoric Counter-Statement, in writing which “in all its smallest details … bristles with disclosures, contrasts, restatements with a difference, ellipses, images, aphorism, volume, sound-values, in short all that complex wealth of minutiae which in their line-for-line aspect we call style and in their broader outlines we call form.” What Charles Dickens calls “the indispensable necessity of varying the manner of narration as much as possible, and investing it with some little grace or other.” In other words, rich writing, showing a pleasure taken in using words. The opposite of a corporate memo studded with bullet points.
The goal of Newspeak, the language of the totalitarian state in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, was yo get rid of words. Doing so has the effect, as another rhetorician, Richard A. Lanham notes in his Style: An Anti-Textbook, of paring away not only words, but paring away “all sense of verbal play.” Paraphrasing the famous slogans of Nineteen Eighty-Four, I have a couple of my own:
We don’t all have to write like Hemingway.
Complexity of syntax is not forbidden.
The key is not amount of words or, necessarily, syntax. It’s clarity.
Consider the following sentence of mine from my post “how to FAIL in business (small businesses, that is)”:
There is something edifying, would you not agree? (it’s a basic human need), about having one’s personhood recognized and about being so acknowledged in a business establishment.
Or the following sentence from a post of mine about Israel, “a better, stronger country?”:
I have — politically naive as I am — been harboring a thought. As follows: That if Israel absorbed the population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and became a true democracy, notwithstanding the fact that Arabs would predominate population-wise, something miraculous would happen. (I have a dream, one might say.)
From my recent post “Beethoven; nature,” about music and poetry devoted to pastoral themes:
With some difficultly, I was able to find and purchase a copy of this book length poem, which I am reading by fits and starts. It’s quite good. It conveys a sense, with Miltonic scope (Thomson’s work has echoes of the cadences of Paradise Lost), of the essence of the countryside in all its various guises and in its plenitude — the rhythms of work and daily life as the seasons change — and how they were experienced by people at the time, which is to say before the Industrial Revolution.
The last sentence may or may not be too long. Perhaps it could have been broken up, simplified. But, as Professor Brooks Landon says, we don’t have to always write (or ever write!) like Hemingway. Sometimes, long, convoluted sentences can be intriguing to read — just plain fun.
And from a published book review of mine:
[The author] has made excellent and creative use of miscellaneous source materials and personal reminiscences (O’Connor was notoriously averse to letter writing) to unearth details about O’Connor’s student days at Notre Dame, his early career as a radio announcer and writer, his Boston years and haunts, his newspaper experience (which included a stint as a television critic for the Boston Herald), the circle of literary friends he made at The Atlantic Monthly and Wellfleet on Cape Cod (where he spent his summers), and the writing process as O’Connor practiced and experienced it.
A long, convoluted sentence or two, but I think they work. And skillfully pack a lot of information, embed it, within a sentence.
Which raises the question: Does a long sentence necessarily mean convoluted syntax? It depends what you mean by convoluted. The above sentences of mine are convoluted, but they are clear. You will find this in the prose of many good writers whose sentences are dense and tightly packed with meaning — not diffuse, they are tightly constructed — but dense and complex. (See appendix.) Complexity in syntax can challenge and (yes) delight the reader. The good writer can do this without sacrificing clarity or becoming incomprehensible. The writing should be clear, not opaque. Or, as the composition theorist Richard A. Lanham puts it, clarity in writing means simple, not plain.
And here’s a passage from a book I have been reading:
The greatest defect in the SEASONS, respects the cast of its moral sentiments; but in this respect it is not the less adapted to the more numerous class of the readers of poetry. The Religion of the Seasons, is of that general kind which Nature’s self might teach to those who had no knowledge of the God of Revelation. It is a lofty and complacent sentiment, which plays upon the feelings like the ineffable power of solemn harmony, but has no reference to the quality of our belief, to the dispositions of the heart, or to the habitual tendency of the character; still less does it involve a devotional recognition of the revealed character of the Divine Being. But on this very account “the Seasons” was adapted to please at the time that Pope ruled the republic of taste, and to the same cause the poem is still indebted for at least some of its admirers. — John Sharpe, “Critical Observations”; introduction to James Thomson’s The Seasons, 1816 edition
Writing such as this consists of passages that are dense and packed with meaning. Should one require of such passages that they be written in telegraphic or perhaps even outline form, so that no one is confused and everyone gets the point or points?
George Orwell said, “Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.” He achieves this. But does this mean that prose must be vitiated by overcutting?
Your writing can be needlessly redundant.
Repetition can be effective. As Richard A. Lanham has observed, in his Style: An Anti-Textbook, “People, even literary people, … repeat things for the pleasure of repetition.” And, I would add, for emphasis.
In my post “thinking “too energetically,” I wrote as follows, about the writings of Ralph Colp Jr.:
They are all superb — superbly researched, crafted, and written. These include articles of his such as “Bitter Christmas: A Biographical Inquiry into the Life of Bartolomeo Vanzetti” and “Sacco’s Struggle for Sanity,” both published in The Nation.
Note the intentional, deliberate repetition by me of superb.
The following is a passage from my post “how to FAIL in business (small businesses, that is)”:
Some people have the human touch — in fact many, if not most, do, I would be inclined to say. One may not realize it, but I have found from personal experience that many service people in lower paying jobs actually enjoy being able to deliver and are eager for human interaction and reciprocity. I have found that, if I make it a point to ask how they are doing, or to thank them for the service — as I have been doing more frequently lately — they brighten up and let you know that they appreciate being appreciated and acknowledged. So, I will ask, for example, at the counter of a store or a restaurant, “how is your day going” or “how was your weekend?” And, if I can find something nice to say, truthfully, about good service, I try to do so. There is something very pleasant about being recognized at a business establishment.
I stopped briefly in a local restaurant the other day to purchase a takeout item. Two persons served me, one with respect to the item purchased and the other one being the cashier. They were all smiles and said, we haven’t seen you in a couple of days! Trivial perhaps and not uncommon, but it is remarkable how good such interactions can make one feel. Good business practice for them, but it’s more than that. It’s the pleasure of being able to share one’s common humanity with casual acquaintances, such as in this case. It helps to decrease feelings of alienation and the sense of powerlessness and insignificance that one often experiences when dealing with the business world, its advertisements, and its products.
The “good” businesspeople enjoy helping others, serving them, being able to ameliorate things for you while engaging in a business transaction. Knowing that they made you happy and gratified themselves at being thanked and appreciated. Feeling that being able to benefit mankind makes their life worthwhile. Showing their humanity.
There is repetition/redundancy here. I make a point that is more or less obvious, then make it again in different words, and restate it several times. To me this is not necessarily a bad thing. Because, in what was the peroration of the piece, I wanted to drive the key point home. Think of a concluding passage in a symphony, where the main theme comes back and often gets hammered home, so to speak.
Here is example of Walt Whitman using repetition:
I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have nothing hang in the way, not the richest curtains. — Preface to Leaves of Grass
He uses repetition/restatement for emphasis.
There is nothing wrong with arguing strongly to make one’s point, or using irony or highly critical language. But when it is embedded in a spirit of “I am the true intellectual and you (or they) are not” and when your conclusions are presented as definitive facts rather than opinions, and when your posts comment on how much smarter you are than the academics or editors you abhor, you come across as arrogant and positive.
When you are talking about others’ opinions in your blog, your strong feelings often come across as definitive conclusions rather than strong opinions, especially when you are talking about editors at the NY Times or academics with advanced agrees or other cohorts for whom you seem to have a special loathing. And sometimes you sound pompous and arrogant.
Opinions are just that. To express an opinion does not amount to arrogance. Even when one is being a contrarian.
Some people, it seems, don’t want or don’t feel that a writer is entitled to have an opinion about anything, with the possible exception of a cardiologist writing a book on heart disease, a psychiatrist a monograph on schizophrenia, or a geology professor writing a treatise on rock formations.
And that, if you should be so presumptuous or rash as to have one, you should begin (they seem to be saying) — wasting words and probably guaranteeing that few will read the piece — with a totally unnecessary introduction explaining (in the manner of someone writing advertising copy for a pharmaceutical company) that these are merely your personal thoughts which, you hope, will not unduly disturb anyone who happens to disagree and that you realize that some, if not many, readers will disagree, which (you hope they will realize that you realize) they are entitled to.
I let my thoughts take me where they may.
Consider George Orwell, whose essays are assigned to freshman composition students as models of excellence and clarity in writing, of burnished prose. Without fail, a strong opinion comes through, not only in Orwell’s essays and in short pieces such as his “Such, such were the joys …,” where he lays bare the injustices of the English boarding school system of the 1930’s, but also in novels such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, where (in the latter work) he calls attention to the pettiness of middle class sensibilities. Should Orwell have begun with a prologue asking the reader to excuse him should the latter be inclined to disagree or (heaven forbid) take offense? Didn’t our English teachers instruct us not to keep saying “In my opinion,” “I think,” etc. over and over again, since it should be evident to the reader that you are presenting your opinion.
Sometimes, it sounds as if you consider yourself to be more knowledgeable than most people. Nothing wrong with having opinions, but sometimes it does sound like you are boastful or consider yourself intellectually a notch above “most people.” You appear to be talking down to your reader. As if you are the scholar expert and your reader should feel privileged to be learning from on high.
Sometimes, your style gives the impression that you are trying to impress your reader with your extensive vocabulary and depth and range of reading. This can get in the way of the point you are trying to make.
There are several criticisms (directed at my writing) embedded in these comments: bosting or showing off about what (allegedly) I regard as my superior knowledge, talking down to the reader, trying to impress the reader with my vocabulary and reading/scholarship. I will take them up all of a piece, so to speak.
Mustering all the learning one can is desirable.
I do, of course, draw, as is entirely appropriate, upon all the learning and knowledge I can muster. Would one counsel me to do otherwise? But, when I am unsure about something, or cannot claim to know it with certainty, I will say so. I do not pretend to experience or knowledge I don’t have. I make every effort I can to draw upon my experience, my reading, my learning (such as it is) and scholarship to flesh out and elucidate what I am saying, and to provide corroboration for my views.
I do think that when someone writes about something, such as literature and music, one should exhibit a modicum of intelligence and prior knowledge, as well as discernment, and a more than superficial knowledge. The writer should not just leap in midstream and go off half cocked.
Be that is it may, I have opinions that I am eager to share in the case of, say, music, one area of aesthetics I enjoy writing about, and even more so about literature, about which I know the most. I do not let the fact that I am not a musicologist or English professor stop me. Because, intuitively, or experientially, I may possibly have seen or perceived more than them.
What about polemical pieces? I have written quite a few, on everything from the criminal justice system to (occasionally) politics.
A polemic is an essay where you argue strongly for something, often an unpopular position rather than the majority one. It should be clear to any reader that I am expressing my opinions. All good writing arises from personal experience or reflection, and writing without a point of view is bland and uninteresting. I do quite often find that I strongly disagree with the opinions of many persons who are regarded as authorities or who hold positions in academia and journalism. What’s wrong with that? It’s called thinking for oneself.
Regarding the charge of trying to impress the reader with my extensive vocabulary, I can only speak from my own experience, as a reader. Many of the best essay writers in the English language use big, recherché words where called for, as well complex grammatical constructions, and write long, convoluted sentences. And yet, they are admirably clear. They take great pains to be so. There’s nothing wrong with challenging the reader. I love it when writers such as Samuel Johnson (to mention one of my favorite writers) challenge me and increase my stockpile of words. It seems to me that the only criterion to be taken into account is the following: Was the word used correctly; does it fit?
Pomposity is not true of me in person or of my writing. A better word for what my critic describes as arrogance might be invective. Invective used where appropriate. In certain posts, that is. I will use irony and invective to try and make a point when I feel that they are appropriate.
Some of my posts, such as my posts about Janette Sadik-Kahn’s plan to remake Fifth Avenue, about the “cultural misappropriation” movement, about the protest against the Emmet Till painting at the Whitney Museum of Art, about the call for destruction of politically incorrect statues and monuments, and about the Anthony Weiner prison sentence, are polemical. To make one’s point — arguing often with fierce “winds” of contrary, often entrenched opinion blowing back at oneself — irony and invective are not inappropriate. Think of Swift writing “A Modest Proposal,” Tom Paine “Common Sense,” or Zola “J’accuse!” The thing is not to be mealy mouthed. A good writer has to say something, assert it.
I do often find myself strongly in disagreement with politicians, policy wonks, social engineers, judges, prosecutors, etc. Writing under such conditions should have an edge. A writer has to be clear and make points forcefully; also, it is hoped that one’s writing will stimulate and provoke the reader to perhaps look at things with a fresh eye.
You can be quite a good writer and have a decent memory, but your writing can be full of braggadocio and totally self-obsessed.
Self-centered (or, as the critic says, “self-obsessed”)? Because I use my own my own experience as fodder for my writings? A writer should not be afraid to write about himself or herself. Honestly. Braggadocio should not be a concern, as long as the writer is honest.
Any writer or writing instructor will tell the beginner: write about what you know best, beginning with your own experience. With yourself.
For some reason, the writings of Theodore Dreiser come to mind. Almost all of his writing drew, directly or indirectly, on his own personal experience.
Take his two autobiographical works, Newspaper Days (originally published as A Book About Myself) and Dawn. The books are notable for their candor, honesty.
For example, Dreiser talks about how he was eager to get a reporter job with a Chicago newspaper, with no experience — he had practically no hope. Then, he was given one or two spot assignments with one of the lesser daily papers and achieved a scoop that earned him immediate recognition. It makes a good story. Dreiser also tells about his personal insecurities and mistakes he made, such as quitting a reporter job with a respected newspaper in disgrace because he faked a theater review. The story about the scoop — it was about the 1892 presidential election — is well worth telling since it shows how Dreiser got a foot in the door as a reporter, leading to a short lived journalism career, and to his establishing a vocation as a writer.
In my autobiographical post “My Boyhood” and other posts of mine which are wholly or in part autobiographical, I discuss successes as well as failures. Personal successes and failures. Honestly. Showing my strengths, some of them noteworthy, as well as weaknesses. Almost all of them make good stories, and that’s what’s important. Examples: an exam I took in a high school history class in which I answered a question about Charles Dickens that no one else could, impressing the teacher; the time I did something similar in a college Spanish course; how I gave a lecture on Tolstoy in Russian from memory in a course at New York University when the professor thought I couldn’t do it and that I couldn’t have written the essay myself. (I noted, in my post: “To be honest, I myself was surprised that I could do it.”) I also discuss, in autobiographical posts and anecdotal material about myself, all kinds of mishaps and miscues in my early years. Embarrassing myself. Showing marked weaknesses in certain areas requiring aptitude or skill. And so on.
In the posts where I talk about my accomplishments and where I came of well, it is usually because there is a narrative interest to them. They reveal something about me, but they also make for good reading, since they are good stories.
I have a preference for the writing style of the essays of E. B. White over the essays of Johnson or Addison or Steele. Their essays are well worth reading and every bit as valuable as White’s but their style is clearly dated. [A middlebrow comment from someone whose exposure to English letters did not go much beyond college English courses.] Sometimes your style sounds dated.
E. B. White is no Joseph Addison or Samuel Johnson. Samuel Johnson outdated? One can’t use Addison or Johnson as examples because they’re out of date? Or Edmund Burke?
I am not a priori inclined to give much weight to the views of a “critic” who prefers E. B. White to Samuel Johnson.
The works of great writers don’t become obsolete, and they are the best models. To improve my writing, at this advanced stage in my writing, I find it much more worthwhile to read Samuel Johnson’s essays. Or those of other great prose writers, such as Burke, Hazlitt, Emerson, or Thoreau.
To repeat, my maxim is study the greats. You can’t go wrong. You can’t do any better.
Why would anyone advise elsewise?
A final thought. We all make judgments about literary and artistic productions, and have opinions about writers, ranging from whether we liked a novel to whether we agree with a magazine or op-ed piece or not, and how well it was written.
But, it’s probably not a good idea, when it comes to an avocation, to try to advise someone for whom the same activity is a vocation how to do it.
Many of the criticisms of my writing (e.g., those quoted above) come from readers of it who, because they majored in English or have read good books, think that makes them experts on writing. They may write well themselves. But such knowledge is, in a sense, passive, by which I mean to say that an active, professional writer will probably have a deeper knowledge of writing from the point of view of a practitioner; and of everything it involves, from style and usage to fine points of punctuation and grammar. I get communiques from English majors who write very well and are highly literate, but in which they make a mistake in usage or punctuation that a professional writer has been trained or has learned from experience (an editor looking over their shoulder, a publisher’s stylebook) to avoid. Some of their comments reveal actual ignorance, despite their educational background, of grammar and style.
— Roger W. Smith
March 2018; updated October 2020
The following are some examples of writing in which the writer uses long sentences and/or complex syntax that challenges the reader without being obscure.
He was chosen again this Parliament to serve in the same place, and in the beginning of it declared himself very sharply and severely against those exorbitancies which had been most grievous to the State; for he was so rigid an observer of established laws and rules that he could not endure the least breach or deviation from them, and thought no mischief so intolerable as the presumption of ministers of state to break positive rules for reason of state, or judges to transgress known laws upon the title of conveniency or necessity; which made him so severe against the earl of Strafford and the lord Finch, contrary to his natural gentleness and temper: insomuch as they who did not know his composition to be as free from revenge as it was from pride, thought that the sharpness to the former might proceed from the memory of some unkindnesses, not without a mixture of injustice, from him towards his father.
— Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England (begun in 1641; published 1702-1704)
Among the many inconsistencies which folly produces, or infirmity suffers, in the human mind, there has often been observed a manifest and striking contrariety between the life of an author and his writings; and Milton, in a letter to a learned stranger, by whom he had been visited, with great reason congratulates himself upon the consciousness of being found equal to his own character, and having preserved, in a private and familiar interview, that reputation which his works had procured him.
— Samuel Johnson, “The difference between an author’s writings and his conversation” (Rambler no. 14; May 5, 1750)
When Persia was governed by the descendants of Sefi, a race of princes whose wanton cruelty often stained their divan, their table, and their bed, with the blood of their favourites, there is a saying recorded of a young nobleman, that he never departed from the sultan’s presence without satisfying himself whether his head was still on his shoulders. The experience of every day might almost justify the scepticism of Rustan. Yet the fatal sword, suspended above him by a single thread, seems not to have disturbed the slumbers, or interrupted the tranquillity, of the Persian. The monarch’s frown, he well knew, could level him with the dust; but the stroke of lightning or apoplexy might be equally fatal; and it was the part of a wise man to forget the inevitable calamities of human life in the enjoyment of the fleeting hour.
— Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776)