Notes on writing

More writing advice from Arnold Bennett

Arnold Bennett

I wrote a post about Arnold Bennett’s book, How To Become an Author, a few months ago, As I said then, Bennett, though little read nowadays, was one of the most commercially successful authors of his time. The book is obviously dated in many ways, but it does provide some invaluable insights into how an author like Bennett approached the task of making a living from his work and how he viewed the craft and practice of writing. As I only dealt with the first chapter in the book in what turned out to be a lengthy post, I thought it would be entertaining to dive into it again.

Chapter 2 is titled ‘The Formation of Style and Bennett opens it by saying that ‘Literature is the art of using words’. Words are the raw material of the writer and his or her sole means of expression. Bennett, ever the practical wordsmith, rejects the notion, common in his time and ours, that literature is, at the fundamental level, about ideas and emotions. Of the aspiring writer, he writes:

He may abound in ideas and emotions of the finest kind, but those ideas and emotions cannot be said to have an effective existence until they are expressed; they are limited to the extent of their expression; and their expression is limited to the extent of the author’s skill in words. I smile when I hear people say, “If I could write, if I could only put down what I feel—!” Such people beg the whole question. The ability to write is the sole thing peculiar to literature — not the ability to think nor the ability to feel, but the ability to write, to utilise words.

Bennett continues in this practical vein by identifying several essential tasks for ‘the Self-Education of the Aspirant. I’ve put them into a summary list:

  • Learn to spell
  • Study the etymology of words
  • Study English grammar
  • Study English composition
  • Regularly practise writing
  • Read and study good models

Bennett’s programme, if taken seriously, is a demanding one. If I compare it to my own (never-ending) self-education as a writer, then I’m certainly falling short on the etymology task. Though I enjoy learning about word origins, I’ve never studied the matter in any systematic way. I’d imagine that goes for most writers. But Bennett is firm on this point: ‘No writer who has not a sound acquaintance with the history of words can possibly make full use of his powers’.

Note to self: get hold of a book on English etymology. Bennett recommends a couple and, incidentally, one of the many pleasures of reading older non-fiction books is to learn which other books the author esteems. So Words and Their Ways in English Speech by J.B. Greenhough and G.L. Kittredge is a book I’m going to search out. It is, Bennett says, ‘a simply delightful volume, which it is the duty of every literary aspirant to read, and read again’.

On the subject of good models, Bennett exhorts the tyro writer to go further than simply reading them:

If Thackeray, or Stevenson, or Sir Thomas Browne, or Charles Lamb specially attract him, let him, in the early stages, imitate Thackeray, Stevenson, Browne, or Lamb. Let him deliberately imitate them. The act will help him in the end to arrive at his own originality.

What strikes me first about these writers, and I realise they’re only examples, is that they are, Stevenson excepted, old-fashioned by the standards of the time. Perhaps they’re the writers that Bennett himself used as models when he was starting out. Imitating Sir Thomas Browne would be a tough assignment for any writer, then and now. As for the practice of imitation itself, it’s something I’ve never tried but I can see the value in it. It’s an exercise that would require an investment of time that writers with day jobs, writers like myself, won’t have if we’re focused on writing for publication. Still, it’s another suggestion from Bennett that I want to try at some point.

Bennett thinks that the novice has two principal difficulties. One is the smallness of their vocabulary and the other is is that they tend ‘to compose in phrases instead of in single words’. Bennett quotes Schopenhauer at this point:

It is only intelligent writers who place individual world together with a full consciousness of their use, and select them with deliberation.

Well, yes, up to a point. But given that the typical novel is between 80,000 and 100,000 words long, that would be an awful lot of deliberation (and agonising) if each individual word were to be weighed in the writing of it (leaving aside the potential for creative paralysis). What Bennett is really aiming at here is the avoidance of cliché, obfuscation, and verbosity. These are traps that any writer, whatever their level of experience, can fall into, especially, I think, when trying to write quickly. Bennett gives some execrable examples ‘from an entirely respectable book, by an author of repute’, and goes on to say:

Avoid the use of ready-made phrases. When they present themselves, as they will do, reject them. Define your thought clearly, and you will discover that its expression demands a new phrase, invented word by word specially for it. Your business is to invent that phase, simply and naturally.

In the final section of this chapter Bennett tackles the knotty problem of style. He provides excerpts from John Ruskin and William Cowper, which I won’t reproduce here, as respective examples of an elevated style and a more relaxed, colloquial one. Both are, as Bennett puts it, ‘distinguished’, but each has its own purposes and audience. Bennett’s conclusion is that:

Style is the result of self-expression, of the writer being himself. If the writer is individually distinguished , then after he has learnt his craft, his style will be distinguished. If he is individually commonplace, then his style will be commonplace.

Stern words from the master. But having discussed style, Bennett’s advice to the tyro writer is to dismiss the notion from their mind:

His sole aim should be to write down, accurately and lucidly and honestly, what he means, always trying to avoid positive ugliness, but not consciously aiming after positive beauty, Let him lose himself completely in the effort to express his meaning in the fewest and clearest words…

Let the aspirant read good stuff, learn the rules and try to say merely what he means.

I think we can all drink to that.

[Photograph of Arnold Bennett courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]