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Can Good Writing Be Taught?

by Wendy Woudstra   


I have a rather extensive collection of books spanning hundreds of years on topics related to writing and publishing. I recently re-opened one to find this collection of comments from famous authors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The advice offered here doesn't differ much from the sort of advice doled out to authors in writing magazines and books today, but perhaps brings a perspective from a less mercenary age of publishing.


THOSE who have traveled the Road of Authorship know its long, hard inclines, its steep hills and its rocky stretches. By their advice the youngster who is just setting foot upon "the only road worth living and traveling and dying in" may profit immeasurably. It is with this idea in mind, therefore, that the following extracts from letters of famous authors are offered.

First of all arises the question: Is good writing a gift or an art?

Dinah Maria Craik

In a letter written a few days before her death, Dinah Maria Craik, author of "John Halifax, Gentleman," says: "I believe composition is a gift, not an art, impossible to teach, though it may be improved by study. The only suggestion I can make is: Say what you have to say as briefly and as simply as you can, avoiding long words and involved sentences, and preferring good Saxon-English to Latinized. In writing, as in most other things, to be your natural self without affectation is the truest wisdom."

Hall Caine

Hall Caine argues that the good writer must have a natural ear for the music of the words. "Without that ear," he claims, "no great prose, as well as no great verse, was ever yet written. Carlyle's ear, with all his angularities of manner, was one of the very finest. Jeremy Taylor's ear was perhaps perfect. So in another way was old Thomas Fuller's. Then how fine was Bunyan's!

"Some writers have a fine sweet air running through everything they write. Others, again, give no sensation of that kind. So without this natural ear for prose I don't think any writer will ever do great things." Mr. Caine tells us how he reached his own special excellence in authorship: "In my youth I read with great avidity some models that are usually considered dangerous, and I remember that my imitative instinct was then so strong that my own writing always reflected the author whom I had been reading last.

"When I began to write for the public in newspapers it was complained that my style was too elaborate, too involved, and much too ornate. Of course I used the choicest and newest words in my vocabulary, and made the mistake that older men are not always free from, of displaying my knowledge of long words, and so proving unwittingly that they were strangers to me.

I remember that my first book was a good deal disfigured by the same excess, and that I had published at least three books before a better manner became natural. The real turning point was the time when I had to write in great haste for a daily paper. Having to dictate a leading article was a sore tax on my arts of self-mystification in labyrinths of words, and a simpler style grew necessary by the very method of production. Short, sharp, pithy sentences took the place of long and windy ones, and I realized that I was a better writer."

Marie Corelli

Marie Corelli argues that good writing is a gift. "I do not think it possible," she says, "to 'train' any one to be an author. The literary faculty is a gift not to be attained by any amount of the most patient and arduous work. It is the outcome of the mind's expression, and the questions I would ask of any would-be writer, are not 'Have you studied the art?' or 'Have you trained yourself?' no, but 'Have you a thought, and is it worth the telling?' If so, declare it, simply and with fervor, regardless of what it may bring; write it as you would speak it, and if it has true value it will reach its mark.

To write for the sake of gaining a livelihood only is a terrible mistake, one that hundreds of authors commit every day. Art always frowns on those who are too ready to barter her for gold. Work done for the love of working brings its own reward far more quickly and surely than work done for mere payment. So far, at least, has been my experience, which is possibly interesting on account of my exceptional and rapid success, and most of the authors I have come in contact with are dissatisfied and insatiate for money--a mood in which inspiration is most absolutely quenched and killed. ''You speak of the 'information of style'; this I feel sure can never be done by any system of study, as it is so essentially the result of the inner formation of thought. As a man thinks, so will he speak, and so must he write, if he elects to handle the pen.

This assertion is borne out by the fact that every author's 'style' is different; precisely for the reason that no two men think alike on the same subject. In short I, personally speaking, owe nothing to systematic training; and I believe the biographies of many authors will show the same condition of things. Too much study leaves the brain no room for original creative work, and deadens the imaginative faculties, and without imagination all literary work is more or less feeble, especially in the line of fiction. It is necessary to observe men and manners more than books, and to note heedfully the vagaries of one's own heart even more than men and manners, for, as Emerson says: 'He who writes to his own heart, Writes to an eternal public' Therein lies the secret of Shakespeare's perpetual charm.

"To conclude with a few details, I may add that though I write rapidly, I correct and revise with an almost fastidious care. The great Balzac was content to consider and reconsider one sentence many times before passing it to the public; and nowadays when slovenly, slip-shod and ungrammatical English is most unfortunately, prevalent in our leading magazines and lighter works of romance, travel and adventure, it behooves all those who write in the noble speech used by Shakespeare to be more than ever particular in the choice of words, the flow of language, and the complete avoidance of slang. The literature of this progressive age ought surely to be able to hold its own with that of the Addison and Steele era, but so long as the vulgar 'society' papers continue to have their thousands of readers, so long will fine taste and comprehension of good literature be rare among the majority of men.

Finally, to quote the old adage, 'Poets are born, not made'--and so are novelists, essayists and scientists, believe me! and no culture will make a man an author if it is not in him; while as for method, there are no such unmethodical beings in the world as literary celebrities! They are the joyous 'Bohemians' of society, all the world is their nation; they wander here, there, and everywhere with the most delightful freedom from routine and restraint, and for those who love their work, I think a literary life is the most enjoyable under the sun. But for those who take to it from sheer necessity, and grind drearily on, day after day, counting the pages they cover, and wondering vaguely how much they will get for it all when it is done, no existence is more bitter, disappointing and fatiguing; and I would never advise any one to take to the literary profession, unless the love of it was so strong and passionate that nothing else would suffice them for happiness."

Thomas Henry Huxley

Prof. Thomas Henry Huxley holds the same views. "I never had the fortune, good or evil," he says, "to receive any guidance or instruction in the art of English composition. It is possibly for that reason I have turned a deaf ear to the common advice to 'study good models,' to 'give your days and nights to the study of Addison,' and so on. Buffon said that a man's style is his very self, and in my judgment it ought to be so.

The business of a young writer is not to ape Addison or Defoe, Hobbes or Gibbon, but to make his style himself, as they made their styles themselves. They were great writers, in the first place, because, by dint of learning and thinking, they had acquired clear and vivid conceptions about one or other of the many aspects of men or things. In the second place, because they took infinite pains to embody these conceptions in language exactly adapted to convey them in other minds. In the third place, because they possessed that purely artistic sense of rhythm and proportion which enabled them to add grace to force, and, while loyal to truth, make exactness subservient to beauty.

"If there is any merit in my English now, it is due to the fact that I have by degrees become awake to the importance of the three conditions of good writing which I have mentioned. I have learned to spare no labor upon the process of acquiring clear ideas, to think nothing of writing a page four or five times over if nothing less will bring the words which express all I mean, and nothing more than I mean, and to regard Historical verbosity as the deadliest and most degrading of literary sins.

Any one who possesses a tolerably clear head and a decent conscience should be able, if he will give himself the necessary trouble, thus to fulfill the first two conditions of a good style. The carrying out of the third depends neither on labor nor on honesty, but on that sense which is inborn in the literary artist, and can by no means be given to him who has it not as his birthright. I should so much like to flatter myself that I am one of the 'well-born' in this respect that I dare not speculate on the subject. Vanity, like sleeping dogs, should be let lie."

Edmund Clarence Stedman

Edmund Clarence Stedman, whose poems and essays are admirable models of restraint, moderation, flexibility and finish, writes: "I am the more impressed the longer I live with the force Buffon's saying. Yes, the style is indeed the man. When young fellow consults me as to the mode of making a speech, of writing an article, I tell him the first thing is to have some-thing to say, i.e., something he must say or express, and then he will say it in his natural and special way, and his way forms style, and the style is thus the man. Style is, like the style of other arts than literature, 'a means of expression' only. Still, fluency of expression, or its compactness, or happy originalities, all these are natural gifts and often inherited."

Julian Hawthorne

Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel Hawthorne, is no un-worthy follower in the steps of his sire. "I am disposed to think," he writes, "that literary style is largely a matter of innate aptitude, and is fostered as much by the study of good authors as by personal efforts. Neither cause will produce a good style without the other, and both are in vain without natural taste and predilection. First know what is good, then learn to do it.

The best writing is always the most spontaneous and easy, not only in appearance, but actually. Smoothness and elegance can be obtained by 'filing'; but the masters of style have no files; they are right the first time, by a sort of trained instinct and intuition. Of course I do not mean that anyone can write well until after long and arduous apprenticeship, and, to mention an experience of my own, though I am far enough from being a master of style, one of my early novels was rewritten seven times, simply as an exercise in putting what I wished to say in simple and compact form; and for several years I published nothing that had not been rewritten twice or thrice. Latterly I seldom alter a line or even a word of my first draft, but that is more from indifference than because I doubt that my work would not benefit from revision. I have a good deal to do and I do it rapidly. The other day I wrote a novel of 70,000 words in less than three weeks."

Samuel Smiles

For the other side Dr. Samuel Smiles argues that "the styles of Kant, Bentham and Carlyle are execrable, and yet the writings of these men will live much longer than those of Tup-per and Hepworth Dixon, who were proud of their styles. The great writer will live by his matter and not by his manner. The curse of pedantry was on Johnson's magniloquent style. You could scarcely feel the beatings of his heart through it. His companion, Goldsmith, thought nothing of his style, and yet his 'Vicar of Wakefield' will be read when Johnson's 'Rasselas' has been forgotten. The Doctor will be remembered in Bos-well, who had no style at all. What Sydney Smith has said is true: 'Every style is good that is not tiresome.' No doubt the style of a writer is a faithful representation of his mind; if he would write in a clear style, he must see and think clearly; if he would write in a noble style, he must possess a noble soul. Fontenelle said that in writing he always endeavored to understand himself. The art of composition, written or oral, can only be acquired by practice. No man is the lord of anything till he communicates his thoughts to others. At the same time the readiest in composition are those who write the most.

Another word: Madame de Gasparin said: 'The reader is the true author. Every book is, in fact, a journey--a journey in which we find little more than we ourselves bring; the richly provided richly require.'

"I think that the example of Franklin was excellent, to read over a paper in The Spectator thoroughly, and then try to put it in language of his own. But every one will have his own style and art of composition. I think the words of the Bible are the best and most straightforward. Addison, Hume and Green ('History of English'), Goldsmith ('Vicar of Wake-field'), and Bacon's essays, are excellent. Carlyle has made a style of his own, mostly formed from the German of Richter. Every one also has his favorite poet. Mine is Wordsworth."

George MacDonald
George MacDonald, the novelist, poet, preacher and lecturer, defines style admirably and shows how a man may become a good writer. "If a man has anything to say he will manage to say it; if he has nothing to communicate, there is no reason why he should have a good style any more than why he should have a good purse without any money, or a good scabbard without any sword. For my part I always scorned the very idea of forming a style. Every true man with anything to say has a style of his own, which, for its development requires only common sense. In the first place, he must see that he has said what he means; in the next, that he has not said it so that it may be mistaken for what he does not mean. The mere moving of a word to another place may help to prevent such mistake. Then he must remove what is superfluous, what is unnecessary or unhelpful to the understanding of his meaning. He must remove whatever obscures or dulls the meaning, and makes it necessary to search for what might have been plainly understood at once. All this implies a combination of writer and critic, not often found. Whatever, in a word, seems to the writer himself objectionable, either in regard to sense or sound, he must rigorously remove. He must use no phrase because it sounds fine, and no imagined ornament which does not contribute to the sense or the feeling of what he writes.

"But, first of all, he ought to make a good acquaintance with grammar, the rarity of which possession is incredible to any but the man who is precise in his logical use of words. There are very few men who can be depended on for writing a sentence grammatically perfect. The thing is summed in this: A good style is one that not merely says, but conveys what the writer means, and to gain it, a man must continually endeavor to convey what he means, and never to show himself off. The mere endeavor to gain the reputation of a good writer is contemptible. I would say to any one whose heart burned within him, write freely what you feel, and then correct rigorously. The truth must give you your material and utterance, and then you must get rid of the faults that would interfere with the entrance of your utterance into the minds of those who may read. The effort after style ought to be but a removing of faults. Say, and then say right."

George Bainton/Robert Louis Stevenson

Success in writing, as it has been frequently pointed out, is not the result of a flash of genius but of long years of study and practice. We all know how the big-souled Robert Louis Stevenson toiled for seven years learning to write. Like others his apprenticeship was served in methodical work and investigation. "Each great work," says George Bainton, to whom the correspondence quoted in this article was written, "is the outcome of serious thought, of laborious research, and of painstaking effort. It is the unity in men of desire, purpose, industry that gives them mastery in the world. The mode or method of experience and culture, therefore, may be called the secrets of the literary career. How have authors fitted themselves for their tasks?"

Amelia E. Barr

Amelia E. Barr has lived. "I have not only read much," she confesses, "I have seen much, and enjoyed much, and, above all, I have sorrowed much. God has put into my hands every cup of life, sweet and bitter, and the bitter has often become sweet, and the sweet bitter. My own firm conviction is that no education can make a writer. The heart must be hot behind the pen. Out of the abundance of life and its manifold experiences comes the power to touch life.

Before I lifted the pen I had been half over the world. I had been a happy wife seventeen years. I had nursed nine sons and daughters. I had drunk of the widow's bitter cup. I had buried all my children but three. I had passed through a great war; been on the frontiers of civilized life in Texas for ten years; as the Scotch say, 'I had seen humanity in a' its variorums.' After that I had fifteen years' apprenticeship on the press of New York, writing editorials upon every conceivable subject, often at a few minutes' notice, acquiring in this way rapid thought and rapid expression. Of course, in the present state of general education, there are few young people who could not write at least one readable book, but the proof of genius lies in continuity.

"I write early in the day. I begin work almost as soon as it is light enough for me to see. I work until noon. Then I am still Southern enough to enjoy a siesta, after which I drive, or see callers, or perhaps do two or three hours' copying. I use the typewriter in all finished work--the Remington."

Lew Wallace

Before his death Gen. Lew Wallace wrote that he had no particular method of work. "Modes of expression in writing," he observed, "like modes of expression in speech, are referable purely to feeling, not studied, but of the moment."

Mark Twain

Mark Twain writes that the inquiry has set him thinking. "But, so far, my thought fails to materialize. I mean that, upon consideration, I am not sure that I have methods in composition. I do not suppose I have--I suppose I must have-- but they somehow refuse to take shape in my mind; their details refuse to separate and submit to classification and description; they remain a jumble--visible, like the fragments of glass when you look in at the wrong end of a kaleidoscope, but still a jumble. If I could turn the whole thing around and look in at the other end, why then the figures would flash into form out of the chaos, and I shouldn't have any more trouble. But my head isn't right for that to-day apparently. It might have been, maybe, if I had slept last night.

"However, let us try guessing. Let us guess that whenever we read a sentence and like it, we unconsciously store it away in our model-chamber, and it goes with the myriad of its fellows to the building, brick by brick, of the eventual edifice which we call our style. And let us guess that whenever we run across oilier forms--bricks--whose color, or some other defect, offends us, we unconsciously reject these, and no one ever finds them in our edifice. If I have subjected myself to any training processes, and no doubt I have, it must have been in this unconscious or half-conscious fashion. I think it unlikely that deliberate and consciously methodical training is usual with the craft. I think it likely that the training most in use is of this unconscious sort, and is guided and governed and made by an unconsciously systematic and automatically-working taste--a taste which selects and rejects without asking you for any help, and patiently and steadily improves itself without troubling you to approve or applaud. Yes, and likely enough when the structure is at last pretty well up, and attracts attention, you feel complimented, whereas you didn't build it, and didn't even consciously superintend. Yes, one notices, for instance, that lung, involved sentences confuse him, and that he is obliged to reread them to get the sense. Unconsciously, then, he rejects that brick. Unconsciously he accustoms himself to write short sentences as a rule. At times he may indulge himself with a long one, but he will make sure that there are no folds in it, no vaguenesses, no parenthetical interruptions of its view as a whole; when he is done with it, it won't be a sea-serpent, with hull' of its arches under the water, it will be a torch-light procession.

"Well, also he will notice in the course of time, as his reading goes on, that the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning. After that, of course, that exceedingly important brick, the exact word; however, this is running into an essay, and I beg pardon. So I seem to have arrived at this: Doubtless I have methods, but they begot themselves, in which case I am only their proprietor, not their father."

Walter Pater

The great secret of all writing, however, seems to be, as Walter Pater expresses it: "Truthfulness,--truthfulness, I mean, to one's own inward view or impression. It seems to me," he adds, "that all the excellencies of composition, clearness, subtlety, beauty, freedom, severity, and any others that may be, depend upon the exact propriety with which language follows or shapes itself to the consciousness within. True and good elaboration of style would, in this way, come to be the elaboration, the articulation to oneself of one's own meaning, one's real condition of mind. I suppose this is the true significance of that often quoted saying, that style is the man. Of course models count for much. We are all learners."

H. Rider Haggard

H. Rider Haggard says he never entered upon any special course of training with a view to succeeding in literature. "To be frank, I doubt the efficacy of such preparation. Of course, a certain amount of practice is necessary for the manufacture of successful fiction, inasmuch as the writer must know what to treat of and what to leave alone, what to select and what to reject. Also he must have a sense of proportion. Whether or not these things are to be learned it is beyond my power to say. Given those natural powers which are necessary to the production of really good fiction, it is probable they are, but without those natural powers disappointment must result."

Will Carleton

Will Carleton, the poet, writes of his own work as simply and as entertainingly as he sings of his lowly characters. "My method of writing is to tell, as far as possible my own thoughts and feelings in my own language, and the thoughts and feelings of others in their language, and to remain unprejudiced and uninfluenced by other writers, using what I find in them as suggestions and not as dictation; to use them, indeed, not as masters, but as fellow-pupils. I can not always escape the influence of old and established styles; I admire the genius of those who have done good work, but I can not feel that it is my interest to be their slave. This often brings me attacks from the critics, especially in my own country, but I endure their bitterness very well, so long as the people continue with me, which I may say, without vanity, they have done."

William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells' style is the result of much study, the frank admission of an error and a successful attempt to rectify it. "I began to compose," he confesses, "by imitating other authors. I admired, and I worked hard to get a smooth, rich, classic style. The passion I afterwards formed for Heine's prose forced me from this slavery, and taught me to aim at naturalness. I seek now to get back to the utmost simplicity of expression, to disuse the verbosity I tried so hard to acquire, to get the grit of compact, clear truth, if possible, informal and direct. It is very difficult. "As to my method, I am only conscious of one feature of it, and that is to conceive my reader as being a wise, noble, sincere person, able to appreciate grave and light treatment of subjects according to their fitness, and utterly intolerant of all affectation and ungenuineness; also a person with very little time to spare to listen to what I have to indicate. I am almost tempted to say that, as far as I know, this is my whole art."

George W. Cable

George W. Cable, one of the really great literary artists, who has given us lasting pictures of Creole days, says: "I should advise any beginner to study the raciest, strongest, best spoken speech, and let the printed speech alone, that is to say, to write straight from the thought without bothering about the manner, except to conform to the spirit or genius of the language. I once thought Latinized dictation was to be invited; I now think Latinized expression is to be guarded against."