Friday, January 28, 2011

The Art of Good Writing

The Financial Times highlights a couple of new books that want to make better writers of their readers.

From the piece...

Fish is a sentence connoisseur who describes his enthusiasm as akin to a sports fan’s love of highlights, and relishes the craft of everyone from the endlessly refined Victorian critic Walter Pater (“To such a tremulous wisp constantly reforming itself on the stream, to a single sharp impression, with a sense of it, a relic more or less fleeting, of such moments gone by, what is real in our lives fines itself down”) to Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia (“Interior decorating is a rock-hard science compared to psychology practised by amateurs”). You won’t come away with dictum such as, “Avoid the use of qualifiers” (Sec V, Rule 8, Strunk & White) but Fish’s catholic taste in prose offers a far richer introduction to the capacities of English language sentences.

Why is this important? Because the form and rhythm of sentences communicates as much meaning as their factual content, whether we’re conscious of it or not. In 1863, when General Grant took the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last hindrance to free passage of Union supplies along the river, President Lincoln wrote in a letter to be read at a public meeting: “The father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” It’s a poem of a sentence, “The father of waters” and “unvexed to the sea” perfectly balanced on the unexpected pivot of “again goes” rather than “goes again”, and all in the service of a metaphor that figures the Union as an inevitable force and the Confederacy as a blight on nature, without mentioning either. If cadence had no content, “Union supplies lines are now clear” would have the same power. And what is obvious in rhetoric is true in literature, as well.

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