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Writers on Writing: Ten Timeless Writing Tips


In this installment of Writers on Writing, we turn to ten authors from the 19th century for some timeless writing advice.

  1. Have something to say.
    The first rule, then, for a good style is that the author should have something to say; nay, this is in itself almost all that is necessary.
    (Arthur Schopenhauer, "On Style." Parerga und Paralipomena, 1851)

  2. Say it.
    Think it out quite clearly in your own mind, and then put it down in the simplest words that offer, just as if you were telling it to a friend, but dropping the tags of the day with which your spoken discourse would naturally be garnished.
    (Frederic Harrison, "On Style in English Prose." Nineteenth Century, June 1898)

  3. Don't wait for inspiration.
    Had I mentioned to someone around 1795 that I planned to write, anyone with any sense would have told me to write for two hours every day, with or without inspiration. Their advice would have enabled me to benefit from the ten years of my life I totally wasted waiting for inspiration.
    (Stendhal [Marie-Henri Beyle], Souvenirs d'Égotisme [Memoirs of an Egotist], 1892)

  4. Keep it simple.
    Use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English--it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.
    (Mark Twain, letter to D. W. Bowser, March 1880)

  5. Mix it up.
    There are occasions when the simplest and fewest words surpass in effect all the wealth of rhetorical amplification. An example may be seen in the passage which has been a favourite illustration from the days of Longinus to our own. "God said: Let there be light! and there was light." This is a conception of power so calm and simple that it needs only to be presented in the fewest and the plainest words, and would be confused or weakened by any suggestion of accessories. . . .

    Although this sentence from Genesis is sublime in its simplicity, we are not to conclude that simple sentences are uniformly the best . . .. The reader's pleasure must not be forgotten; and he cannot be pleased by a style which always leaps and never flows. A harsh, abrupt, and dislocated manner irritates and perplexes him by its sudden jerks. It is easier to write short sentences than to read them. . . . [T]he sharp short sentences which are intolerable when abundant, when used sparingly act like a trumpet-call to the drooping attention.
    (George Henry Lewes, "The Principles of Success in Literature." The Fortnightly Review, 1865)

  6. Chop wood.
    Learn to split wood, at least. . . . [S]teady labor with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, is unquestionably the best method of removing palaver and sentimentality out of one's style, both of speaking and writing. . . . We are often struck by the force and precision of style to which hard-working men, unpracticed in writing, easily attain when required to make the effort. As if plainness, and vigor, and sincerity, the ornaments of style, were better learned on the farm and in the workshop, than in the schools.
    (Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849)

  7. Read aloud.
    He who wants to know whether he has written what he wishes to say, and as he ought to say it, let him read it aloud to himself. Even his own voice will seem as apart from him as that of an auditor. Or let him do as the shrewd Moliere did, read his composition to his cook, if no one else is at hand--read it to any one who will listen--and the reader will at once become sensible of redundancies, omissions, irrelevancies, and incongruities, of which his own wit will never make him sensible. Even stupidity as an auditor will improve style.
    (George Jacob Holyoake, Public Speaking and Debate: A Manual for Advocates and Agitators, 2nd. ed., 1896)

  8. Listen.
    I always began my task by reading the work of the day before, an operation which would take me half an hour, and which consisted chiefly in weighing with my ear the sound of the words and phrases. I would strongly recommend this practice to all tyros in writing. . . . [B]y reading what he has last written, just before he recommences his task, the writer will catch the tone and spirit of what he is then saying, and will avoid the fault of seeming to be unlike himself.
    (Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography, 1883)

  9. Slow down--and rewrite.
    The swiftly done work of the journalist, and the cheap finish and ready-made methods to which it leads, you must try to counteract in private by writing with the most considerate slowness and on the most ambitious models. And when I say "writing"--O believe me, it is rewriting that I have chiefly in mind.
    (Robert Louis Stevenson, letter to Richard Harding Davis, 1889)

  10. Cut.
    In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigour it will give your style.
    (Sydney Smith, quoted by Saba Holland in A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith, 1855)
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