LETTER TO A YOUNG WRITER

 

By Albert H. Morehead

 

September 1, 1957

 

I don't know whether or not writing is a disease with you. You probably don't know either. If it is, you are helpless anyway, like those whose diseases are music or medicine or money‑making or anything else on the list, down to much of a muchness. I've had the writing disease since I was about eleven, and while I don't like it any more I haven't found the remedy if any. If it isn't a disease with you it can still be a pleasant and sometimes profitable hobby. Of course, all writers and in fact all practitioners of all arts suffer from frustration. Even the so‑called successful ones. Some have achieved artistic but not popular acceptance and are sure they could have sold millions of books if only they had had the time and taken the trouble, and others have made money but gotten no critical acclaim and they are sure they could have created true art too if only publishers and editors hadn't kept bombarding them with orders for well‑paid hackwriting. There are a handful of exceptions, Hemingway, Heifetz, Horowitz — apparently we now shift from the M's to the H’s.

 

If you do have any thought of writing for a living, I can help you. If you don't you can skip the next few paragraphs, but that wouldn't be human so you won't anyway. My rules for writing have never been published and in fact this is the first time I've ever written them down. I keep them as a strictly commercial asset; if I gave them to my competitors, most of whom have more talent than I, my poor family would soon be starving. Like the recipes of French chefs and the trade secrets of the ancient guilds, they are to be handed down from generation to generation within the family. You, being of the family, qualify. My rules turn out to be a series of “don'ts" but they are not actually negative. In this case the negative mode of expression turned out to be more convenient and also it implies the existence of exceptions.

 

The first don't: Don't kid yourself. You want to sell what you write and if you write books you want people to buy them, Nothing is more damaging psychologically or to one's writing career than to take comfort in belonging to an avant garde or lunatic‑fringe group that glorifies the esoteric. Truly great writing has universality of appeal, anyway.

 

Don't be self‑conscious about your writing. Write down everything that comes to mind, no matter how much it makes you blush. You can always throw it away before anybody else sees it. Many a girl who can write a really delightful letter to her sister or her parents will freeze when she sits down to write something for publication. She will be so afraid of writing something bad that she will sit indecisively before her typewriter and write nothing. Professional writing depends on output. Some of your worst paragraphs will yield some of your best sentences. If you don't know how to start, start anyway. You can rewrite something you've written, but you can't do anything with something you haven't written.

 

Don't separate subject and verb if you can help it, and in no case separate them more than you have to. This is basic to clarity yet almost never fully understood or properly expressed. It isn't a matter of short sentences vs. long sentences, you can make a sentence almost as long as you wish and still not sacrifice easy reading if you get the subject and the verb together. Time after time editors have sent me for rewriting some article that had good material but seemed unduly involved, and all I had to do to fix it was to get the subjects and the verbs together. It isn't a cure‑all, it isn't the secret of good writing, but it's a very good rule.

 

Don't start sentences with participial phrases. For one thing, participial phrases are almost never correctly used — for the simple reason that there are so few cases in which they can be correctly used. Dilettante writers usually have the notion that participial phrases add variety. If so, it is at too great sacrifice. Most often the result is a dangling participle or a non sequitur. A correct use might be, "Born in 1743, he became a typical 18th‑century dandy…" More often you will read, "Born in 1743, he studied at Oxford and then…" Obviously there is no connection. It is safer and usually more elegant to say, "He was born in 1743 and… Then the reader need not pause and look for the connection. Whether or not he can find it, the writing has become lees effective.

 

Don't be afraid to repeat words. Read Fowler on the subject. Repetition is a crime only to newspaper reporters and bad writers. If a word is proper to express your meaning it is the right word, no matter how often you have used it before. An unnecessary change of words where there is no intended change of meaning will cause the reader to pause and look for a distinction in sense, and again the writing has become less effective,

 

Both of the foregoing paragraphs have a kinship to the next don't, which is: Don't make the reader stop and think anymore often than is necessary. Any involved sentence, obscure idea or unfamiliar word will interfere with the smoothness of the reading, which is almost synonymous with the smoothness of the writing. It isn't quite true that you should always use the shorter word, though I can hardly imagine a case in which a good writer would say purchase when he means buy; nevertheless, the longer word is sometimes more euphonious and if so you should use it even if it seems pretentious. Also, there are cases in which partial obscurity is properly used to create a mood. That is why I said "more often than is necessary." Overuse of such devices will make you hard reading and unless you have transcendent genius, like Faulkner perhaps, you will lose your readers.

 

It is natural enough to be confused about life and thoughts and emotions and all the other imponderables, and perhaps we are more confused when we are young, perhaps we remain confused all our lives but simply learn better to submit to the confusion as we grow older. It has been a modern vogue, for fifty years or so, to express the confusion in words, on canvas, etc., and pass it along to one's audience. In my opinion that is not a proper function of any form of artistic expression, but certainly it is not a proper function of writing. The writer's greatest service lies in translating the substance from confusion to clarity. If he cannot do this he will appeal only to those who are subjectively interested in him, his problems, and his attitudes, and there will seldom be enough such persons to make a best‑seller.

 

This leads me to a corollary don't: Don't be sorrier for your characters than they are for themselves. Especially in the short story, it seems to be considered essential that all be stark and sad. Any aspect of happiness and good fortune removes the story from the realm of true art. Such an approach is artificial and fallacious. Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, which you have probably read, avoided the fallacy very skillfully. He was writing about unfortunate people and he had the undisguised object of creating sympathy for them, but every now and then his characters cast off their mantle of woe and had a thoroughly enjoyable session of dancing and song and fun. A fiction‑writer should follow a kind of Stanislavski system, actually being each character, and if he does this well he will remember that no normal human being can manage to be unhappy all the time. Comedy relief isn't merely a device of the movies, it is a fact of life.

 

Don't seek individuality by trying to be different. One learns to write by reading. Change for the sake of change and difference for the sake of difference defeat their own purpose. You can be a good writer without ever departing from the techniques of other writers, simply by applying these techniques to your own ideas and experiences. Inspiration and talent, if you have them, will provide your individual contributions with no voluntary or conscious effort on your part. It you should happen to come up with as little as ninety percent borrowed and as much as ten percent your own, you will have made a considerable contribution. I might almost have said ninety‑nine percent and one percent.

 

Learn good English style if you possibly can. I mean such artificialities as uniformity of treatment in parallel constructions, not using "over" when you mean "more than" or like" when you mean "as," and avoidance of such rhetorical crimes as tautology. You may not be able to reconcile the rigid rules with a rational spirit, but if you are going to write for the market you will have to sell to editors, and editors are pedantic, and the First Law of professional writing is, "Write to please the editor, to hell with the reader.” Style‑consciousness is a special aptitude. You may not have it, and you don't have to have it to be a successful and even a great writer. When you don't have it, you can hire it. The offices of publishing firms are full of subeditors who know style backwards and forwards and will never write anything worth publishing. I have bought hundreds of articles from college professors, including professors of English, and there aren't five in a hundred who can write three consecutive sentences without an error in grammar or style. Nevertheless it pays to know the copybook rules, if only so that you will depart from them only deliberately.

 

My heavens, I haven't rambled on like this for years. It was a pleasure to write it, even if you don't read it.

 

Yours,

 

Albert