Thursday, January 17, 2013

A decalogue for writing well

My seminar on evil in the American novel (from Philip K. Dick to Philip Roth) is also an “advanced writing course.” I am required to assign a composition text, perhaps the least interesting kind of book ever invented (I assigned Gerald Graff’s They Say/I Say as perhaps the least least interesting of the genre). The real textbook, though, is my instruction. So today I spoke these aseret devarim for writing well:

( 1.) Thou shalt have no other goals or purposes before this: to make thyself clear, to thyself perhaps most of all.

( 2.) Thou shalt not whore after any literary technique—any of the “tools long associated only with fiction, such as elaborate structures, characterization, and even symbolism”—nor suspense nor metaphor nor any fancy shmancy thing, but shalt faithfully serve the clarity that bringest thee out of confusion.

( 3.) Thou shalt remember thy conclusion, and begin there.

( 4.) Thou shalt be scrupulous to connect thy thoughts one to the other.

( 5.) Thou shalt obey the distinction between evidence and authority.

( 6.) Thou shalt write with abiding love toward thy evidence, quoting it in a white terror of getting it wrong, and hatred in thy heart toward authorities, quoting them only to refute them.

( 7.) Thou shalt not pretend to expertise nor reach for language that lies beyond thee.

( 8.) Thou shalt write in thine own name, and fear not to say “I.”

( 9.) Thou shalt not assume thou hast made thyself clear, but must be willing always to repeat thyself where necessary—to dwell upon an argument, to occupy a point—for the sake of making thy meaning manifest.

(10.) Thou must forget everything thou hast ever been taught about writing, including these commandments which I command thee this day.

“We shall do and we shall hear,” my students did not reply.

2 comments:

Mack Hall, HSG said...

I, I, I, me, me, me? One thinks not.

D. G. Myers said...

Much better to resort to periphrastic evasions (“one believes” instead of “I believe” or “it can be argued” rather than “I argue”), yes, yes, yes.