Serendipitously, I encountered two book reviews yesterday containing very sound advice on the art of writing. I expected as much out of the first review in which Joseph Epstein, whose prose I’ve long admired, politely begs to differ with Stanley Fish on how one ought to go about the process of writing well. The second piece, a review of two books on higher education by Louis Menand, himself a more than competent stylist, offered its comments on writing incidentally to its main point. I took both to be very near the truth of the matter.
After thirty years of teaching a university course in something called advanced prose style, my accumulated wisdom on the subject, inspissated into a single thought, is that writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned—and that, friends, is the sound of one hand clapping. A. J. Liebling offers a complementary view, more concise and stripped of paradox, which runs: “The only way to write is well, and how you do it is your own damn business.”
Learning to write sound, interesting, sometimes elegant prose is the work of a lifetime. The only way I know to do it is to read a vast deal of the best writing available, prose and poetry, with keen attention, and find a way to make use of this reading in one’s own writing. The first step is to become a slow reader. No good writer is a fast reader, at least not of work with the standing of literature. Writers perforce read differently from everyone else. Most people ask three questions of what they read: (1) What is being said? (2) Does it interest me? (3) Is it well constructed? Writers also ask these questions, but two others along with them: (4) How did the author achieve the effects he has? And (5) What can I steal, properly camouflaged of course, from the best of what I am reading for my own writing? This can slow things down a good bit.
A bit further into the review he adds:
First day of class I used to tell students that I could not teach them to be observant, to love language, to acquire a sense of drama, to be critical of their own work, or almost anything else of significance that comprises the dear little demanding art of putting proper words in their proper places. I didn’t bring it up, lest I discourage them completely, but I certainly could not help them to gain either character or an interesting point of view. All I could do, really, was point out their mistakes, and, as someone who had read much more than they, show them several possibilities about deploying words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, of which they might have been not have been aware. Hence the Zenish koan with which I began: writing cannot be taught, but it can be learned.
In “Live and Learn: Why We Have College”, Louis Menand reviews two recent books on the state of higher education and along the way offers his own well-considered thoughts on the subject. One of the two books, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic (which began its life as an article in The Atlantic) contained, in Menand’s estimation, sound thoughts on writing:
When he is not taking on trends in modern thought, Professor X is shrewd about the reasons it’s hard to teach underprepared students how to write. “I have come to think,” he says, “that the two most crucial ingredients in the mysterious mix that makes a good writer may be (1) having read enough throughout a lifetime to have internalized the rhythms of the written word, and (2) refining the ability to mimic those rhythms.” This makes sense. If you read a lot of sentences, then you start to think in sentences, and if you think in sentences, then you can write sentences, because you know what a sentence sounds like. Someone who has reached the age of eighteen or twenty and has never been a reader is not going to become a writer in fifteen weeks.
For Menand and Epstein, the secret, if there is one, of good writing appears to be attentive reading, and a lot of it.