Grand writing

There’s a risk, when putting words on the page, of drifting so far from the rhythm and style of everyday-speech, that we alienate potential readers.  Just to be clear, by speech, I don’t mean dialogue, I’m talking of general prose, and writers voice…like this piece, for instance.

Although I’m addressing you in the first person, we both know you can’t interrupt, raise a query, or set me a counter argument.  This page is my podium, and the rule I’m exploiting is that only I can speak.

Consequently, I’m using words in a way that I wouldn’t in conversation.  A lot of us prosy-people like to do this.  It’s partly because of my enjoyment of language, and using precisely the right word to convey my meaning.  That’s good, that’s desirable.  But, why did I need to begin this paragraph with ‘consequently‘?  And I could have said, ‘I love words, and like to use them accurately.’ – it’s to the point: it’s just as true.

It’s not so impressive, though, is it?

I seem to be a narrator with an ego.  I try not to be, but LOOK, I’m writing, and you’re reading.  You are reading every word, aren’t you?  I want you to, but what I really want is that you enjoy these words so much you follow their route all the way to my final full-stop.

So how can I keep you?

Well, Chekov said, “Good writing is like a windowpane”.  I take that to mean that my words should not get in the way of what I’m trying to convey, whether that’s fiction or fact or something that straddles them both.  Turned the wrong way round, language can become more about the writer than it is about story.

I’m not trying to claim that all fiction should be written in the same way.  This isn’t about the vocabulary we choose, it’s about our syntax – which the Oxford Dictionary defines as, “the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences”.  Sometimes it pays to think about whether that arrangement creates a tone that overpowers our content.

It’s easy to slip into a writing-style that borders on archly-academic – or do I mean, academically arch?  But be warned, using the type of prose that ‘feels’ writerly is instantly dating (don’t you think?).


Pierre Bonnard, Young Woman Writing.  1908

5 thoughts on “Grand writing

  1. Cath – thanks, thought provoking as always. Two of my thoughts: Clarity of the words you use combined with an invisible “style” makes reading a delight – but, as evidenced in the Henry James, difficult sentence construction and unusual words force the reader to do what you are beseeching us to do, read every word. (If the style is too smooth it is tempting to speed read and consequently miss some of the beautiful precisely chosen words.). I have no answer except “educate the reader!”
    Second minor thought, in poetry I guess ambiguity of meaning is part of the art?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Mike. Good points. My thoughts on James are rather contradictory. I’m glad to have read him, but do I only do that because he is of his time, and in part, as a result of his reputation? As you say, once we’ve engaged, he does force us to read every word, and I admire that. But are we reading him for education or pleasure? I love to investigate what he’s doing, but am still not certain how I feel about reading him. I think I have to be in the right mood…

      I think your second point is a major one, which is why I’ve concentrated on prose. Poetry is a huge other area of discussion, and I love it for the ambiguities.


  2. Love that Chekhov observation that “Good writing is like a windowpane”. It’s true enough, though Flaubert’s narrative invisibility sometimes bores me, while Dickens bombast and intrusiveness can be very entertaining – a dirty window perhaps? I guess it depends on my mood…

    Liked by 1 person

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