The science of beautiful writing

fountain pen

Man has an instinctive inclination toward communication and the written word. Indeed, it is writing that can be held up as the defining record of our civilisation – an enduring and expansive catalogue of human feeling, expression, discourse, thought, history and philosophy. Yet we are also drawn to the study of writing as an art form – inspired by a belief that, through learning, tips and advice, we can learn to write well and beautifully.

Perhaps this is because good writing has to be learned – and even if there are those who possess a natural flair or talent for the craft, this must be honed and cut from its raw bedrock if it is to be perfected. As David Oglivy – iconic businessman and original ‘Mad Man’ – wrote in a 1982 memo to his advertising agency employees: “Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.”

Yet to move beyond simply ‘good writing’, and to attempt to create writing that might be termed great, canonical or beautiful, is to learn more than simple writing tips, tricks and hints. In fact, it requires no less than the someone miraculous mastery of “style” – a rather illusive term that nonetheless is at the heart of one of the most important writing guides; Strung and White’s The Elements of Style, a book of legendary status that has inspired countless writers – and even inspired a rap.

Nearly a century after The Elements of Style was first published, Harvard’s Steven Pinker – arguably today’s most prominent and prolific psycholinguist – has now taken up the task of trying to articulate the science of beautiful writing, in his book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

In the prologue, Pinker writes:

“I like to read style manuals for another reason, the one that sends botanists to the garden and chemists to the kitchen: it’s a practical application of our science. I am a psycholinguist and a cognitive scientist, and what is style, after all, but the effective use of words to engage the human mind?”

From this starting point, Pinker approaches the question of style first and foremost as a scientist – applying the findings of his field to debunking a number of longstanding dogmas and dictums about writing that are often followed blindly, for instance:

“We now know that telling writers to avoid the passive is bad advice. Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory. A skilled writer should know what those functions are and push back against copy editors who, under the influence of grammatically naïve style guides, blue-pencil every passive construction they spot into an active one.”

However, there is nothing cold or overly analytical in this scientific deconstruction. And this is thanks, largely, to the very obvious fact that the book has ultimately been inspired by Pinker’s love of writing and the written word.

His broader point that carries through the book is that language is not a set of static doctrines; but rather a living, breathing thing – born from a dynamic interaction between writer and reader, speaker and listener. This is the inverse of E.B White’s ‘ecstasy’ of reading – in which White notes that “as in the sexual experience, there are never more than two persons present in the act of reading – the writer, who is the impregnator, and the reader, who is the respondent.”

Because of this intimate relationship, and because of the organic nature of writing, Pinker notes that such rigid rules are both limiting and unnecessary:

“Although some of the rules can make prose better, many of them make it worse, and writers are better off flouting them. The rules often mash together issues of grammatical correctness, logical coherence, formal style, and standard dialect, but a skilled writer needs to keep them straight. And the orthodox stylebooks are ill equipped to deal with an inescapable fact about language: it changes over time. Language is not a protocol legislated by an authority but rather a wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers, who ceaselessly bend the language to their needs and who inexorably age, die, and get replaced by their children, who adapt the language in their turn.”

This cross-contamination – or fertilization – of ideas is what drives language and literature forward. Writers have long noted the influence of other writers on themselves and their own work, and this can be seen as a natural evolution of consciousness, creativity, culture and, ultimately – style. As nobel-prize winning writer, J.M Coetzee, notes in this detailed interview:

“There are works of literature whose influence is strong but indirect because it is mediated through the whole of the culture rather than immediately through imitation. Wordsworth is the case that comes to mind. I see no marks of Wordsworths style of writing or style of thinking in my own work, yet Wordsworth is a constant presence when I write about human beings and their relations to the natural world. […]

“One does not pick up ideas from writers, but a style, an attitude to the world [which] as it soaks in, becomes part of the personality, part of the self, ultimately indistinguishable from the self.”

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As we continue with Pinker’s book, then, we see that his personal intention is to “distinguish the rules that enhance clarity, grace, and emotional resonance from those that are based on myths and misunderstandings” and to supplant “dogma about usage with reason and evidence.”

The trick then, is to apply insights, writing advice and tips, mindfully – rather than robotically. This is, then, ultimately about consciousness, and deliberately thinking hard about why we do what we do and understanding our intentions when it comes to penning a word, a phrase, a short story, a novel.

Pinker carries on, denoting the three main reasons why style is so important – and why it matters so much today:

“First, it ensures that writers will get their messages across, sparing readers from squandering their precious moments on earth deciphering opaque prose…

Second, style earns trust. If readers can see that a writer cares about consistency and accuracy in her prose, they will be reassured that the writer cares about those virtues in conduct they cannot see as easily…

Style, not least, adds beauty to the world. To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures… This thoroughly impractical virtue of good writing is where the practical effort of mastering good writing must begin.”

Pinker, then, does not take Oscar Wilde’s view that “nothing worth knowing can be taught”. Rather, he believes fervently and passionately that everyone and anyone can learn to write beautifully, and write with style – through a combination of both instruction, and – most importantly – by absorption. A kind of creative osmosis, whereupon one is fertilized by the ideas and writings of others. Our own writing self, then, is not who we personally are – but is rather a continually learning, growing thing, created by all the writers we have read and all the ideas we have heard and all the things we have seen.

The most important scientific tool to enable one to write beautifully, then, is no new gadget – no minimalist typewriter – but rather the simple book. And the best guide to good writing is good reading. Just as Susan Sontag said she became a writer by first becoming a reader, and like David Foster Wallace – who urged his writing students to read a lot and read attentively, and as Ray Bradbury advised aspiring writers that the only education they needed was available to them through their local library – so too does Pinker advocate the immeasurable value of reading in learning to write:

“Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash… The starting point for becoming a good writer is to be a good reader. Writers acquire their technique by spotting, savoring, and reverse-engineering examples of good prose.”

He offers some words of assurance to those entering the craft:

“An aspiring writer could be forgiven for thinking that learning to write is like negotiating an obstacle course in boot camp, with a sergeant barking at you for every errant footfall. Why not think of it instead as a form of pleasurable mastery, like cooking or photography? Perfecting the craft is a lifelong calling, and mistakes are part of the game. Though the quest for improvement may be informed by lessons and honed by practice, it must first be kindled by a delight in the best work of the masters and a desire to approach their excellence.”

The siren call of clichés

But, of course, there are a few time-honoured elements to be aware of, if one is searching to “approach their excellence”. And perhaps the most important of these, Pinker suggests, is to resist any and all urge to fall back to tired clichés:

“Every writer faces the challenge of finding a superlative in the English word-hoard that has not been inflated by hyperbole and overuse… Good writing can flip the way the world is perceived, like the silhouette in psychology textbooks which oscillates between a goblet and two faces.”

Thankfully, Pinker is on hand to offer keen advice on how to search out the perfect word:

“Readers who want to become writers should read with a dictionary at hand (several are available as smartphone apps), and writers should not hesitate to send their readers there if the word is dead-on in meaning, evocative in sound, and not so obscure that the reader will never see it again. (You can probably do without maieuticpropaedeutic, and subdoxastic.) I write with a thesaurus, mindful of the advice I once read in a bicycle repair manual on how to squeeze a dent out of a rim with Vise-Grip pliers: “Do not get carried away with the destructive potential of this tool.”

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Writing as conversation

Ultimately, Pinker reminds us that writing is a “kind of conversation, or correspondence, or oration, or soliloquy” – and because of that is alike to the instinctive human need to communicate (just as Darwin noted that “man has an instinctive tendency to speak”).

However, the trick with writing is to converse with invisible men and women – our inscrutable readers who never show us their reactions. This may at first sound challenging; however, as writers the prescription or remedy to this challenge should come easy enough, since Pinker suggests it requires a simple act of imagination:

“At the time we write, the reader exists only in our imaginations. Writing is above all an act of pretense. We have to visualize [a conversation], and put words into the mouth of the little avatar who represents us in this simulated world.

The key to good style, far more than obeying any list of commandments, is to have a clear conception of the make-believe world in which you’re pretending to communicate.”

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Some of the finest advice on writing – Kurt Vonnegut on stories, structure and style

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Fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays and five works of non-fiction stand as a towering testament of Kurt Vonnegut’s ability to show us the fantastic in literature, and the extent to which books and writing can make us feel sublime. He is rightly admired by writers, readers – and most people who have had the fortune of stumbling across some of his work. Countless resources exist within the babbling expanse of the internet, based on his writing, and what he can teach us about writing – from the perspective of the writer, the reader, and the human being.

In this article, we attempt to bring some of these resources together – a mini-compendium featuring some of Vonnegut’s timeless wisdom on writing.

A first rule: no semicolons

By way of introduction, we believe it is of paramount importance to highlight Vonnegut’s self-defined “first rule” of writing. Lovers of the semi-colon should look away now.

In a delightfully dogmatic writing rule of thumb, Vonnegut offers the following advice for aspiring writers: “A First Rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All the do is show you’ve been to college.”

Leave those semicolons by the wayside, then. Now, onwards and upwards!

An old favourite: the shape of stories

A much viewed clip available on YouTube is an old favourite of the team here at Nothing in the Rulebook. In it, Kurt Vonnegut maps out the shapes of stories, with equal parts irreverence and perceptive insight, along the “G-I” axis (Good Fortune and Ill Fortune), and the “B-E axis” (Beginning and Entropy). The footage, an excerpt from a much longer talk, is best accompanied by the transcript of the full talk – in ‘A man without a country’, an almost-memoir Vonnegut published in 2007.

The fundamental thesis behind the delightful graphs Vonnegut uses to depict everything from Cinderella to Kafka to Hamlet, is that, in his own words “stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper”.

The shape of Cinderella

The shape of Cinderella

Yet this thesis, which he submitted in pursuit of a master’s degree, was rejected – according to the man himself – because “it was so simple, and looked like too much fun”.

We’ll let you decide for yourself what you make of it:

Interestingly, these plottable graphs have been creatively reimagined by graphic designer Maya Eilam, in new infographic format.

The importance of style

Vonnegut’s 1985 essay, “How to Write with Style”, published in the anthology How to Use the Power of the Printed Word, begins by reprimanding what he perceives as the impersonal sterility of journalistic reporting. This fuelled by Vonnegut’s musings on the single most important element of style, which writers of all creeds must possess – a revelation of self.

“Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writing. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.

These revelations tell us as readers what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time […] Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your reader will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an ego maniac or a chowderhead — or, worse, they will stop reading you.”

Choose to ignore such a warning at your peril!

Find your routine

The idea of finding your ‘routine’ as a writer is often bandied about and discussed at great lengths on various writing forums, threads, advice boards, literature festivals, creative writing seminars and classes, and so on. Writing is, after all, a discipline; and is perhaps more about working terribly hard at something and focusing intently on that, rather than simply spending your days living life as a “creative”.

Yet recognising the importance of a writing routine and actually developing one is a trick not learned easily – and made more difficult by our increasingly 24-7 lifestyles (both working and social). For inspiration, Vonnegut serves as an icon to aspire to, with his gruelling daily routine, often noted in a marvellous collection of his letters.

In one letter to his wife, Jane, dated 28 September, 1965, for example, Vonnegut describes how he would work for 90 minutes before a short break for breakfast at 8am, then continue working until 10 am. Here, he then walks into town, runs errands, swims at the local pool, returns to his house for lunch at noon, then spends the afternoon preparing for his classes (he was working at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa), then an evening spent reading and listening to jazz music. Throughout the day he does “pushups and sit-ups” and occasionally visits the cinema, where he has his heart broken.

Perhaps it’s time we all brought a little more discipline and heartbreak to our writing routines!

8 Simple tips for writing a great story

There are plenty of such #WritingTips lists floating about. But Vonnegut’s simple list on how to write a good short story deserves repeating in full:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Vonnegut's signature self portrait

Vonnegut’s signature self portrait

Make your soul grow

Finally, one last, and perhaps most important piece of advice from Kurt Vonnegut. One year before the author’s death, he wrote a letter in reply to a group of New York City school children who prevailed upon him to come and visit their school. His thoughtful reply provides advice that goes beyond tips for writing or reading; and instead simply teaches how to lead a good life.

A transcript of the letter here follows:

November 5, 2006

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana. 

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, butrhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut