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lesson with the same passages twice or thrice, if your memory is not filled with the words of the author, and observe, at each trial, the progress you have made, not merely by comparison with the original, but by comparison with the previous exercises. Do this day after day, changing your author for the purpose of varying the style, and continue to do so long after you have passed on to the second and more advanced stages of your training. Preserve all your exercises, and occasionally compare the latest with the earliest, and so measure your progress periodically.
In this first lesson I pray you to give especial attention to the words, which, to my mind, are of greater importance than the sentences. Take your nouns first, and compare them with the nouns used by your author. You will probably find your words to be very much bigger than his, more sounding, more far-fetched, more classical, or more poetical. All young writers and speakers fancy that they cannot sufficiently revel in fine words. Comparison with the great masters of English will rebuke this pomposity of inexperience, and chasten your aspirations after magniloquence. You will discover, to your surprise, that our best writers eschew big words and abhor fine words. Where there is a choice, they prefer the pure, plain, simple English noun--the name by which the thing is known to all their countrymen and which, therefore, is instantly understood by every audience. These great authors call a spade "a spade;" only small scribblers or penny-a-liners term it“ an implement of husbandry.” If there is a choice of names, good writers prefer the homeliest, while you select the most uncommon, supposing that you have thus avoided vulgarity. The example of the masters of the English tongue
should teach you that commonness (if I may
be allowed to coin a word to express that for which I can find no precise equivalent) and vulgarity are not the same in substance. Vulgarity is shown in assumption and affectation of language quite as much as in dress and manners, and it is never vulgar to be natural. Your object is to be understood. You will be required to address all sorts and conditions of men ; to be successful, you must write and talk in a language that all classes of your countrymen can understand; and such is the natural vigour, picturesqueness and music of our tongue, that you could not possess yourself of a more powerful instrument for expression. It is well for you to be assured, that while, by this choice of homely English for the embodying of your thoughts, you secure the ears of the common people, you will at the same time please the most highly educated and refined. The words that have won the applause of a mob at an election are equally successful in securing a hearing in the House of Commons, provided that the thoughts expressed and the manner of their expression be adapted to the changed audience.
Then for the sentences. Look closely at their construction, comparing it with that of your author; I mean, note how you have put your words together. The best way to do this is to write two or three sentences from the book and interline your own sentences, word by word, as nearly as you can, and then you will discover what are your faults in the arrangement of your words. The placing of words is next in importance to the choice of them. The best writers preserve the natural order of thought. They sedulously shun obscurities and perplexities. They avoid long and involved sentences. Their rule is, that one sentence should express one
thought, and they will not venture on the introduction of two or three thoughts, if they can help it. Undoubtedly this is often extremely difficult; sometimes impossible. If you want to qualify an assertion, you must do so on the instant; but the rule should never be forgotten, that a long and involved sentence is to be avoided, wherever it it is practicable to do so.
Another lesson you will doubtless learn from the comparison of your composition with that of your model author. You will see a wonderful number of adjectives in your own writing and very few in his. It is the besetting sin of young writers to indulge in adjectives, and precisely as a man gains experience do his adjectives diminish in number. It seems to be supposed by all unpractised scribblers--and it is a fixed creed with the penny-a-lining class—that the multiplication of epithets gives force. The nouns are never left to speak for themselves. It is curious to take up any newspaper and read the paragraphs of news, especially if they are clipped from a provincial journal, or supplied by a penny-a-liner; or to open the books of nine-tenths of our authors of the third and downward ranks. You will rarely see a noun standing alone, without one or more adjectives prefixed. Be assured that this is a mistake. An adjective should never be used unless it is essential to correct description. As a general rule, adjectives add little strength to the noun they are set to prop, and a multiplication of them is always enfeebling. The vast majority of nouns convey to the mind a much more accurate picture of the thing they signify than you can possibly paint by attaching epithets to them. A river is not improved by being described as “flowing;” the sun by being called "the glorious orb of day;” the moon by being styled “gentle ;
“gentle ;” or a hero by being termed “gallant.” Pray you avoid it.
When you have repeated this lesson many times and find that you can write with some approach to the purity of your author, you should attempt an original composition. In the beginning, it would be prudent, perhaps, to borrow the ideas, but to put them into your own language. The difficulty of this consists in the tendency of the mind to mistake memory for invention, and thus, unconsciously, to copy the language as well as the thoughts of the author. The best way to avoid this is to translate poetry into prose; to take, for instance, a page of narrative in verse and relate the same story in plain prose; or to peruse a page of didactic poetry, and set down the argument in a plain unpoetical fashion. This will make you familiar with the art of composition, only to be acquired by practice; and the advantage, at this early stage of your education in the arts of writing and speaking, of putting into proper language the thoughts of others rather than your own is, that you are better able to discover your faults. Your fatherly love for your own ideas is such that you are really incompetent to form a judgment of their worth, or of the correctness of the language in which they are embodied. The critics witness this hallucination every day. Books continually come to them, written by men who are not mad, who probably are sufficiently sensible in the ordinary business of life, who see clearly enough the faults of other books, who would have laughed aloud over the same pages, if placed in their hands by another writer, but who, nevertheless, are utterly unable to recognise the absurdities of their own handiwork. The reader is surprised that any man of commonintelligence could indite such a maze of nonsense, where the right word is never to be found in its right place, and this with such utter unconsciousness of incapacity on the part of the author. Still more is he amazed that, even if a sensible man could so write, a sane man could read that composition in print and not with shame throw it into the fire. But the explanation is, that the writer knew what he intended to say—his mind is full of that, and he reads from the MS. or the type, not so much what is there set down, as what was already floating in his own mind. To criticise yourself you must, to some extent, forget yourself. This is impracticable to many persons, and lest it may be so with you, I advise you to begin by putting the thoughts of others into your own language, before you attempt to give formal expression to your own thoughts.