What I Believe About Writing

I am lately incapable of reading any material without at the same time thinking of ways to improve it. I hope that’s a good sign, a bird testing the edge of its nest, perhaps. Here, for example, is the opening to Roald Dahl’s ‘The Visitor’:

‘Not long ago, a large wooden case was deposited at the door of my house by the railway delivery service. It was an unusually strong and well-constructed object, and made of some kind of dark-red hardwood, not unlike mahogany. I lifted it with great difficulty on to a table in the garden, and examined it carefully. … I walked slowly to the tool-shed, still pondering the matter deeply, and returned with a hammer and screwdriver. Then I began to prise open the top of the case.’

I admire Roald Dahl. I grew up with his stories and characters, his bootbogglers and fizzlecrumps. I will rewrite the above passage on the assumption, not that I’m in any way exceeding a master, but that I’d like to. I think a teacher should consider it a compliment when one of his students tries to climb above him on a ladder jointly built.

There’s nothing doomed about the passage. Its narrative is economical, and it leaves one wanting to read on. And yet, was the wooden case delivered by the railway delivery service, or was it delivered to a house standing next to the railway delivery service? The word order is befuddled, and so too is the reader. ‘Not unlike mahogany’ is another way of saying ‘like mahogany’. George Orwell wrote that ‘One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field,’ which is, well, not nice.

Then we come to a minefield of adverbs, the adjective’s demon twin. This surprises me for two reasons: who was his editor at the time, and by what right did Dahl admonish a young writer for his ‘beastly adjectives’ when, in this passage at least, Dahl’s adverbs are as searching as the Kraken’s tentacles? One needn’t lift anything with great difficulty, examine anything carefully, walk slowly, ponder deeply, or prise gently. The only thing he has prised open here is Will Self’s alphabet spaghetti. If I were a literary editor (and I suspect a few of my friends are thankful I’m not), I would propose the following changes:

‘Not long ago, the railway delivery service left a large wooden case at my front door. It was strong and well-constructed, and made of a dark-red hardwood, like mahogany. I heaved it onto a table in the garden and examined it. … I walked to the tool-shed, still pondering the matter, and returned with a hammer and screwdriver. Then I began to pry open the top of the case.’

Whether that’s better or worse is up to you. It’s eighteen words fewer than the original, and could be shorter still. Economy is not ugly. On the contrary, stripping a sentence of its unnecessary parts lets shine its rhythm and precision. Improving a sentence usually shortens it.

You might contest my cutting the adverbs. But ask yourself what is lost. Adverbs and adjectives often present concepts contained already in the noun, e.g. ‘brownish mud’, ‘yellow daffodils’, ‘carefully examine’. ‘Examine’ entails carefulness. Imagine a police officer shouting through the megaphone, ‘You are partially surrounded.’ Used sparingly, adverbs devastate. For adjectives, ask first if the noun would suffice, and second, if three synonymous adjectives are really better than one. Writers from Shakespeare to Voltaire, Twain to Orwell have treated adverbs and adjectives like weeds, in favour of the toughness and pluck of verbs and nouns. So should we.

These are matters of grammar and syntax. More complex matters of construction, story, rhythm, and creativity itself can only be taught to a certain extent. Beyond that, the writer becomes like Christian in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, battling demons and resisting temptations in the Slough of Despond and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. (Besides the King James Version, there are few better style guides for the English language than Pilgrim’s Progress.)

But I am convinced that certain principles can be taught, and that clarity and economy are among them. Even for writers like Nabokov, whose works stand like Baroque Cathedrals, one can be sure that any knaves, frescoes, and side chapels that hindered the structure were destroyed. Whittling words gives them room to quiver. The principles by which one does it are not like the prejudices of an in-house style guide. Just as mathematics and geometry proceed from axioms, so it is for prose.

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