Writing words worth reading – 3. Reading to write and further reading

May 21, 2019

In the last of three blogs on writing words worth reading, Jeff Aronson explains why he thinks that reading will help your writing and recommends a selection of texts that may be useful.

Modern guides often assert that being a good reader won’t make you a good writer. I disagree.

There are many reasons for reading, some of which are relevant to good writing.

Apart from anything else, reading is enjoyable. But it is also educational. This is obviously true of non-fiction, but it can be true of fiction too. Here’s an example.

Jean-Dominique Bauby, a well-known Parisian journalist, has a stroke and loses consciousness; when he awakes he finds himself paralysed and unable to speak. René Maugras, a well-known Parisian journalist, has a stroke and loses consciousness; when he awakes he finds himself paralysed and unable to speak. The first case really happened. Bauby’s stroke resulted in the locked-in syndrome, leaving him unable to communicate except by flickering his left eyelid. But that was enough to enable him, via an amanuensis, to write The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly (translated by Jeremy Leggatt, Fourth Estate, 1997), in which he muses on his predicament. The second case, one of aphasic stroke, features in a novel by Georges Simenon, Les Anneaux de Bicêtre (translated as The Patient by Jean Stewart, Hamish Hamilton, 1963).

Bauby’s poesy is enchanting. We wonder at the courage of a man who can mentally survive his ordeal and we quietly thank the fates that we have not experienced their cruelty. But his account, moving though it is, is limited by his own circumstances and one that we are bound to experience only through his eyes (or eyelid). In contrast, his imagination roaming free, unconstrained by autobiographical reticence, and untrammelled by facts, Simenon gives us a riveting universal account of the psychological aspects of a problem that hospital physicians see daily, but about which they seldom think in other than physical terms. His ability to describe an experience he has not had, and that most of us could not begin to imagine, is spell-binding.

For the full experience you need to read both books.

By reading widely you may also absorb new vocabulary and useful modes of expression. When reading American pulp fiction as a teenager I became aware of an unusual use of the word “of”, as in “he should of known better”. I thought that it was an incorrect phonetically driven alternative to “have”, a sort of mondegreen. But when I read the entries on “of” in the Oxford English Dictionary I learnt a lot more than I had expected to, including examples of this usage from Thomas Jefferson, Charlotte Brontë, and Compton Mackenzie. You can take this in one of two ways: either it’s OK, because good writers have used it, or it shows that good writers sometimes get things wrong. I tend to the latter view.

Relevant to this is the theory of lexical priming, which proposes that the ways in which we use words are conditioned by how we experience them. Extending this idea to reading suggests that our experience of words in texts will mould the ways in which we in turn use those words. In brief, reading will influence your writing, and by extension reading good writing will influence your writing for the better.

Reading will also improve your ear for good prose, complementing your voice. Reading a wide range of fiction helps to cultivate this, giving as it does the chance to compare well written and poorly written texts. The more you read the better you will become at distinguishing the two types.

A reading list

For general reading, go beyond the technical literature that informs your writing. Read great authors whose prose has been widely admired, both fiction and non-fiction. I recommend books listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (ed. Peter Bocall, various editions since 2006). Despite the title, you don’t have to read them all. Start with titles in the middle of the book. On the other hand, you might not want to model your style on, say, Finnegans Wake or Waiting for Godot.

For medical writing try collections of Richard Asher’s writings, such as Talking Sense and A Sense of Asher. You’ll find them in your favourite online book store. And the clarity of Oliver Sacks’s essays, both medical and more general, is exemplary; of his several published volumes I particularly recommend Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (Picador, 2019). Sacks was at one time a pupil of Asher’s.

To help you understand clichés, I recommend A Defence of Clichés by Nicholas Bagnall (1985).

To understand rhythm, read The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry (Hutchinson, 2005), an excellent introduction; it’s about poetic rhythms, but good prose is often rhythmic. For a more advanced account, I recommend the New Princeton Guide to Poetry and Poetics (4th edition, ed. Alex Preminger & TVF Brogan, Princeton UP, 1993).

I know no books devoted to the subject of alliteration, but an entertaining article will remind you not to overdo it; a little alliteration goes a long way.

There are several books devoted to punctuation, although they are either excessively prescriptive or very dry, sometimes both. Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss (Profile Books, 2003) is highly entertaining but shouldn’t be taken seriously. You Have a Point There by Eric Partridge (Hamish Hamilton, 1953) is the definitive text, but it is long and not for the casual reader. As a compromise you could try Mind the Stop by G V Carey (Pelican Books, 1971) or the Penguin Dictionary of Punctuation (Penguin Books, 1997). The last of these is very clear and concise and also offers advice on preparing texts for publication. Unaccountably, it recommends the Harvard method of formatting references, when most bioscience journals use the much better Vancouver method. Fortunately, in my experience, bad punctuation is uncommon and only infrequently of major importance, despite the many contrary examples that the books cite.

And what about style guides? This term covers two types of text: books devoted to grammatical correctness and the stylistic results of observing certain precepts and those that deal with how copy is prepared for publication in newspapers, journals, and books. It is the former that concern me here.

Among the better such guides is the book that people call “Fowler”. The latest edition, Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2015) by Jeremy Butterfield, is sound if a little staid. I also recommend the much livelier 1926 edition by Fowler himself (Oxford World Classics, 2010), although he was more prescriptive than those who edited later editions, Ernest Gowers (1968) and Robert Burchfield (1996). Fowler is best used as a reference book.

In my view the best current non-prescriptive guide to English usage is Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English by Oliver Kamm (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2015), although he does tend to take an extreme libertarian stance when attacking the prescriptivists. He does, after all, jocularly refer to himself as a pedant.

The Complete Plain Words by Ernest Gowers (1954) is a classic; it’s best read in the 2014 edition, Plain Words (Particular Books, 2014), revised by Rebecca Gowers.

Some like The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and EB White, which has not been out of print since it was first published in 1959. It has the merit of being brief, but it is very prescriptive.

Grammar & Style by Michael Dummett (Duckworth 1993) is also very prescriptive, but good on style. I like it because, as Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford, Dummett mischievously picked his examples of poor writing from documents issued by the administrators of the University. He wrote it “to help University examination candidates … to write grammatically correct and stylistically inoffensive sentences”, at a time when the University’s examiners might have been expected on the whole to be rigid prescriptivists; perhaps they still are.

I suggest reading the less rabid prescriptivists first, to understand their rigorous approach, and then the descriptivists, to understand why usage and its history are important and why the prescriptivists need not be followed slavishly.

For a specific book-length guide to medical writing I would once have recommended Thorne’s Better Medical Writing by Stephen Lock (Wiley, 2nd edition, 1977), but it is badly out of date. However, it is entertaining and gives insights into what medical publishing was like 40 years ago, as an antidote to those who are scathing about modern methods. Medical Writing: A Prescription for Clarity by Neville W Goodman, Martin B Edwards, and Elise Langdon-Neuner (CUP, 4th edition, 2014) contains sound advice for the most part, but it is rather too prescriptive for my taste.

Today, there is a large selection of other usage guides of variable quality. Many of them are by outraged commentators, who, while not themselves linguistics experts, fancy that they know what is correct and what is wrong and tell you so aggressively. Bad signs are when they use the words “always” and “never” or propound dictatorial “rules”. Ignore them. And to help you do that, I won’t name them.

Figure 1 shows where I place the recommended texts on the spectrum from prescriptivism to libertarianism.

Figure 1. A range of general guides to grammar and style, arranged on a spectrum according to my assessment of their primary prejudices

Conclusions

These three blogs on writing words worth reading are not about ideas to purvey, nor the specific words to use in doing so. They are about how to use those words efficiently, clearly, unambiguously, and above all comprehensibly. I do not pretend to have told you how to do that. But I do hope to have pointed to some of the ways in which you may be able to approach those goals yourself.

Read good writers. Consult the better guides when in doubt. But first and foremost, write. Don’t stop at the first draft: revise, revise, and revise again. Read your work to yourself, assessing its rhythm and looking for ambiguities. Then, no matter how experienced you are, submit your work to others, preferably those whose views you respect, and try to learn from what they tell you.

Finally, do not rush to publish what you’ve written. In the Ars Poetica, the Roman poet Horace advised writers to keep their manuscript on the shelf for 9 years, pointing out that there was no need to retract what hadn’t been published. These days few restrain themselves from publishing for even 9 seconds, particularly on social media. But I believe that whatever you write, it will benefit by being kept back for, say, 9 days, pending comments from others, followed by reflective rewriting.

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