On Writing: Part Three

Part One gives excerpts of W.Somerset Maugham’s candid insights about the craft of writing. Part Two gives my advice to writers of non-fiction works. This part recommends some writings about writing, some writers to emulate, and a short list of reference works. Part Four will deliver some sermonettes about practices to follow if you wish to be taken seriously and not thought of as a semi-literate, self-indulgent, faddish dilettante.


See Part One for excerpts of Maugham‘s memoir, The Summing Up. Follow the link to order a copy of the book. It’s personal, candid, and insightful. And it bears re-reading at intervals because it’s so densely packed with wisdom.

Read Steven Pinker‘s essay, “Why Academic Writing Stinks” (The Chronicle Review, September 26, 2014). You may not be an academic, but I’ll bet that you sometimes lapse into academese. (I know that I sometimes do.) Pinker’s essay will help you to recognize academese, and to understand why it’s to be avoided.

Pinker’s essay also appears in a booklet, “Why Academics Stink at Writing–and How to Fix It,” which is available here in exchange for your name, your job title, the name of your organization, and your e-mail address. (Whether you wish to give true information is up to you.) Of the four essays that follow Pinker’s, I prefer the one by Michael Munger.

Beyond that, pick and chose by searching on “writers on writing.” Google gave me 193,000 hits. Hidden among the dross, I found this, which led me to this gem: “George Orwell on Writing, How to Counter the Mindless Momentum of Language, and the Four Questions a Great Writer Must Ask Herself.” (“Herself”? I’ll deliver a sermonette about gender in Part Four.)

Those of you who know (or know of) The Elements of Style, you may wonder why I haven’t mentioned E.B. White. I’m saving him for the next two sections.


Study Maugham’s The Summing Up for its straightforward style. Consider these opening sentences of a paragraph, for example:

Another cause of obscurity is that the writer is himself not quite sure of his meaning. He has a vague impression of what he wants to say, but has not, either from lack of mental power or from laziness, exactly formulated it in his mind and it is natural enough that he should not find a precise expression for a confused idea. This is due largely to the fact that many writers think, not before, but as they write. The pen originates the thought.

This is a classic example of good writing. The first sentence states the topic of the paragraph. The following sentences elaborate it. Each sentence is just long enough to convey a single, complete thought. Because of that, even the rather long second sentence should be readily understood by a high-school graduate (a graduate of a small-city high school in the 1950s, at least).

I offer the great mathematician, G.H. Hardy, as a second exemplar. In particular, I recommend Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology. (It’s an apology n the sense of “a formal written defense of something you believe in strongly,” where the something is the pursuit of pure mathematics.) The introduction by C.P Snow is better than Hardy’s long essay, but Snow was a published novelist as well as a trained scientist. Hardy’s publications, other than the essay, are mathematical. The essay is notable for its accessibility, even to non-mathematicians. Of its 90 pages, only 23 (clustered near the middle) require a reader to cope with mathematics, but it’s mathematics that shouldn’t daunt a person who has taken and passed high-school algebra.

Hardy’s prose is flawed, to be sure. He overuses shudder quotes, and occasionally gets tangled in a too-long sentence. But I’m taken by his exposition of the art of doing higher mathematics, and the beauty of doing it well. Hardy, in other words, sets an example to be followed by writers who wish to capture the essence of a technical subject and convey that essence to intelligent laymen.

Here are some samples:

There are many highly respectable motives which may lead men to prosecute research, but three which are much more important than the rest. The first (without which the rest must come to nothing) is intellectual curiosity, desire to know the truth. Then, professional pride, anxiety to be satisfied with one’s performance, the shame that overcomes any self-respecting craftsman when his work is unworthy of his talent. Finally, ambition, desire for reputation, and the position, even the power or the money, which it brings. It may be fine to feel, when you have done your work, that you have added to the happiness or alleviated the sufferings of others, but that will not be why you did it. So if a mathematician, or a chemist, or even a physiologist, were to tell me that the driving force in his work had been the desire to benefit humanity, then I should not believe him (nor should I think any better of him if I did). His dominant motives have been those which I have stated and in which, surely, there is nothing of which any decent man need be ashamed.

*     *     *

A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas. A painter makes patters with shapes and colors, a poet with words. A painting may embody an ‘idea’, but the idea is usually commonplace and unimportant. In poetry, ideas count for a good deal more; but, as Housman insisted, the importance of ideas in poetry is habitually exaggerated…

…A mathematician, on the other hand, has no material to work with but ideas, and his patterns are likely to last longer, since ideas wear less with time than words.

A third exemplar is E.B. White, a successful writer of fiction who is probably best known for The Elements of Style. (It’s usually called “Strunk & White” or “the little book.”) It’s an outgrowth of a slimmer volume of the same name by William Strunk Jr. (Strunk had been dead for 13 years when White produced the first edition of Strunk & White.)

I’ll address the little book’s authoritativeness in the next section. Here, I’ll highlight White’s style of writing. This is from the introduction to the third edition (the last one edited by White):

 The Elements of Style, when I re-examined it in 1957, seemed to me to contain rich deposits of gold. It was Will Strunk’s parvum opus, his attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin. Will himself had hung the tag “little” on the book; he referred to it sardonically and with secret pride as “the little book,” always giving the word “little” a special twist, as though he were putting a spin on a ball. In its original form, it was  forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.

Vivid, direct, and engaging. And the whole book reads like that.


If you could have only one book to help you write better, it would be The Elements of Style. (There’s now a fourth edition, for which I can’t vouch, but which seems to cover the same ground as my trusty third edition.) Admittedly, Strunk & White has a vociferous critic, one Geoffrey K. Pullum. But Pullum documents only one substantive flaw: an apparent mischaracterization of what constitutes the passive voice. What Pullum doesn’t say is that the book correctly flays the kind of writing that it calls passive (correctly or not). Further, Pullum derides the book’s many banal headings, while ignoring what follows them: sound advice, backed by concrete examples. (There’s a nice rebuttal of Pullum here.) It’s evident that the book’s real sin — in Pullum’s view — is “bossiness” (prescriptivism), which is no sin at all, as I’ll explain in Part Four.

There are so many good writing tips in Strunk & White that it was hard for me to choose a sample. I randomly chose “Omit Needless Words” (one of the headings derided by Pullum), which opens with a statement of principles:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine to unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all of his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

That would be empty rhetoric, were it not followed by further discussion and 17 specific examples. Here are a few:

the question as to whether should be replaced by whether or the question whether

the reason why is that should be replaced by because

I was unaware of the fact that should be replace by I was unaware that or I did not know that

His brother, who is a member of the same firm should be replaced by His brother, a member of the same firm

There’s much more than that to Strunk & White, of course, (Go here to see table of contents.) You’ll become a better writer — perhaps an excellent one — if you carefully read Strunk & White, re-read it occasionally, and apply the principles that it espouses and illustrates.

After Strunk & White, my favorite instructional work is Lynne Truss‘s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero-Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. I vouch for the accuracy of this description of the book (Publishers Weekly via Amazon.com):

Who would have thought a book about punctuation could cause such a sensation? Certainly not its modest if indignant author, who began her surprise hit motivated by “horror” and “despair” at the current state of British usage: ungrammatical signs (“BOB,S PETS”), headlines (“DEAD SONS PHOTOS MAY BE RELEASED”) and band names (“Hear’Say”) drove journalist and novelist Truss absolutely batty. But this spirited and wittily instructional little volume, which was a U.K. #1 bestseller, is not a grammar book, Truss insists; like a self-help volume, it “gives you permission to love punctuation.” Her approach falls between the descriptive and prescriptive schools of grammar study, but is closer, perhaps, to the latter. (A self-professed “stickler,” Truss recommends that anyone putting an apostrophe in a possessive “its”-as in “the dog chewed it’s bone”-should be struck by lightning and chopped to bits.) Employing a chatty tone that ranges from pleasant rant to gentle lecture to bemused dismay, Truss dissects common errors that grammar mavens have long deplored (often, as she readily points out, in isolation) and makes elegant arguments for increased attention to punctuation correctness: “without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning.” Interspersing her lessons with bits of history (the apostrophe dates from the 16th century; the first semicolon appeared in 1494) and plenty of wit, Truss serves up delightful, unabashedly strict and sometimes snobby little book, with cheery Britishisms (“Lawks-a-mussy!”) dotting pages that express a more international righteous indignation.

Next up is Wilson Follet’s Modern American Usage. The link points to a newer edition than the one that I’ve relied on for more than 40 years. Reviews of the newer edition, edited by one Erik Wensberg, are mixed but generally favorable. However, the newer edition seems to lack Follett’s “Introductory,” which is divided into “Usage, Purism, and Pedantry” and “The Need of an Orderly Mind.” If that is so, the newer edition is likely to be less uncompromising toward language relativists like Geoffrey Pullum. The following quotations from Follett’s “Introductory” (one from each section), will give you an idea of Follett’s stand on relativism:

[F]atalism about language cannot be the philosophy of those who care abut language; it is the illogical philosophy of their opponents. Surely the notion that, because usage is ultimately what everybody does to words, nobody can or should do anything about them is self-contradictory. Somebody, by definition does something, and this something is best done by those with convictions and a stake in the outcome, whether the stake of private pleasure or of professional duty or both does not matter. Resistance always begins with individuals.

*     *     *

A great deal of our language is so automatic that even the thoughtful never think about it, and this mere not-thinking is the gate through which solecisms or inferior locutions slip in. Some part, greater or smaller, of every thousand words is inevitably parroted, even by the least parrotlike.

(A reprint of the original edition is available here.)

I have one more book to recommend: The Chicago Manual of Style. Though the book is a must-have for editors, serious writers should also own a copy and consult it often. If you’re unfamiliar with the book, you can get an idea of its vast range and depth of coverage by following the preceding link, clicking on “Look inside,” and perusing the table of contents, first pages, and index.

Every writer should have a good dictionary and thesaurus at hand. I use The Free Dictionary, and am seldom disappointed by it. There also look promising: Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster. I suggest, you decide (or offer alternatives).


One comment

  1. Thanks for providing this expansion on writers and reference materials to study. I agree with Steven Pinker on academic writing. Every so often I find journal articles that contain poor premises and conclusions. As Pinker pointed out, the writing style intimidates people into believing the information presented. I also relate to G.H. Hardy’s thoughts on the important driving forces of intellectual work and, specifically, leading with intellectual curiosity and truth-seeking.

    Looking forward to your post on E.B. White’s Elements of Style!


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