A selected passage from Aes Triplex by Robert Louis Stevenson
To be overwise is to ossify; and the scruple-monger ends by standing stockstill. Now the man who has his heart on his sleeve, and a good whirling weathercock of a brain, who reckons his life as a thing to be dashingly used and cheerfully hazarded, makes a very different acquaintance of the world, keeps all his pulses going true and fast, and gathers impetus as he runs, until, if he be running towards anything better than wildfire, he may shoot up and become a constellation in the end. Lord look after his health, Lord have a care of his soul, says he; and he has at the key of the position, and swashes through incongruity and peril towards his aim. Death is on all sides of him with pointed batteries, as he is on all sides of all of us; unfortunate surprises gird him round; mim-mouthed friends and relations hold up their hands in quite a little elegiacal synod about his path: and what cares he for all this? Being a true lover of living, a fellow with something pushing and spontaneous in his inside, he must, like any other soldier, in any other stirring, deadly warfare, push on at his best pace until he touch the goal. ‘A peerage or Westminster Abbey!’ cried Nelson in his bright, boyish, heroic manner. These are great incentives; not for any of these, but for the plain satisfaction of living, of being about their business in some sort or other, do the brave, serviceable men of every nation tread down the nettle danger, and pass flyingly over all the stumbling-blocks of prudence. Think of the heroism of Johnson, think of that superb indifference to mortal limitation that set him upon his dictionary, and carried him through triumphantly until the end! Who, if he were wisely considerate of things at large, would ever embark upon any work much more considerable than a halfpenny post card? Who would project a serial novel, after Thackeray and Dickens had each fallen in mid-course? Who would find heart enough to begin to live, if he dallied with the consideration of death?
Aes Triplex (meaning ‘Triple Brass; a strong defense’)
Robert Louis Stevenson, Aes Triplex , The Oxford Book of Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 314-315.
You can read more selected passages from notable authors here.
People often spend too much time on Facebook. The site is not intrinsically a bad one, it’s just that people are pummeled with far too much information, given human nature. For many millennia, humans lived in communities where the good or bad news they heard about was from within, perhaps, one hundred miles at the outside. With the introduction of mass media in the last two hundred or so years — I refer to the increasingly wide availability of it and not its mere arrival — we are getting far too much bad news, useless news, and random facts about other peoples lives that tend to pull us away from the things we should be doing: working on things to improve our own lives. We need to develop skills in Time Management.
Working is important. But working is not all just ‘work’, so to speak. Improving yourself by exercising, reading, creating or building something, helping others, etc., are examples of things that would fall under the rubric (heading) of what I have indicated above as “working on.” There are so many things we could be working on, right? Well, it may be an idea, then, to choose one and begin it so that we can accomplish something besides time on the internet. Sometimes, there are so many things to do we feel overwhelmed, and do not do anything instead. But, if we take the most important few things, and do those in manageable stages, we will have accomplished things that needed to get done, and however overly simplistic this formula seems to appear, it works. This blog is about writing, and writing things down can be a useful way to help you with your time management and make sure you get things done.
It was once said that “what gets written down, gets done.” I make use of the wisdom of this proverb on a regular basis, and it helps. I just make a list of the things I need to do, the familiar “to do list”, and I try to accomplish as many as I can. I do not put too many things on the list, because my lists are usually for one day only, and it is better to focus on a few things that need to get done and get them done, rather than expecting yourself to do more than you are able to do in a given day. And besides, if it needs to get done, then you want to give that task lots of wiggle room and not crowd it with too much other, less important, work.
Completing the important things we need to do can be negatively impacted by the time we spend each day on the internet, doing whatever it is we do there. Mostly, we are filling our minds looking at other people’s lives, opinions, and latest news, but the important thing is we are spending time reading about other people’s lives. But for each hour we do, we are not spending that hour on our own life. Remember, as you spend time and energy on the bustling world of internet updates, in some sense you are taking it away from what should go towards your own daily “updates”, your life. Consider this quote from Horace Mann:
Horace Mann 1796-1859
Colons are cool: they are used to help the writer convey more detail or emphasis on what they have introduced in the first part of their sentence, an independent clause. The colon is one of the most underused instruments in a writer’s toolbox, but I encourage you to consider using it more regularly. Use it between connected independent clauses or before a list, whenever the situation calls for it. The two most common uses are (1) using it after the first part of a sentence, which is technically a complete sentence on its own, to precede more detail or emphasis on what you introduced to the reader in the first part. (2) The second most common use is related to the first, only in this case your details come in the form of a list. Two quick examples:
(1) The boy had a small dog: a miniature Great Dane.
You can see how the first part of the sentence is a sentence all its own. The second part gives the reader an important detail about the first part of the sentence.
(2) The boy had a Great Dane with unique features: it was only twenty inches tall, had long ears, a dark brown coat, and appeared to smile at you.
Here again, important details, but in a list.
Remember, what comes after the colon in the second part of the sentence must be connected to the first part, it must give a detail or details about what you presented to the reader in the first part. You can also see here above, I used a colon after the words “Two quick examples.” This is standard practice for many writers, and you can see how this usage follows the general requirement for a colon that what follows it is connected to what comes before it. Like all punctuation ought to, the colon helps the reader in terms of sentence flow. It’s all about flow when it comes to reading, and colons can help you create a pause that will signal the reader to do the same.
A few words about flow. Sentence flow is the rhythm the reader senses when reading your writing, and you want it to move like the current of a deep and strong river. Sometimes that can be slow moving, or you can get into a whitewater flow, but both are effective tactics pursuant to your specific context. With a writer like Charles Dickens, the flow is fairly slow, but in his best works it keeps you moving with interest: Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, for instance. Dickens’s flow is slower, as well, because he uses a great deal of colorful adjectives, and very insightful names for his characters, using onomatopoeia: in Greek, this word means ‘making names’. While technically it refers to the imitation of a sound, it can also, I think, point to a word with another meaning which we are more familiar with. Think of the lawyer in Great Expectations, Jaggers. His name sounds like “daggers”, and in our minds we are pulled towards that and Dickens, I suggest, knew this very well. Many of his characters’ names are created in this way. But there is the rub, having really interesting names, lots of description, and his famous long sentences, slows the reader down. But good for him, we still love his writing.
The important thing to remember is that flow is real for readers, and it either helps them or hinders them based on its quality level. I have previously given you some ideas as to what will help you create better flow, in a previous post, found here. In this current post I have been referring to flow in sentences, but there is flow in the narrative/plot overall, flow between paragraphs and chapters, and flow in character development. These are a few of the more important instances of flow.
Bleak House: Opening (in part) by Charles Dickens
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.
You can read more selected passages from notable authors here.
Editors can help us in the process of writing better. They tend to convert writing from unclear to clearer. There is no clear, remember that. Perfect writings do not exist. Like one of my professors once told me, you can always go back to a piece of writing and make changes, no matter how far along in the process of writing you are; even if you have published a work, there will always be changes you could have made. So if clear writing is actually non-existent, then clearer writing is the goal that every writer should aim for. In an important sense, to be clearer is clear enough. I think there are three simple ways you can, generally, make your own writing clearer.
- The Second Set of Eyes principle – Having someone else read your written work, anyone who can read basically, can help you immeasurably, and here is why. All people read in rhythms and cadence with various levels of comprehension. So, have the people you have read your writing highlight those areas that they trip up on in their natural reading rhythm, and have them indicate at what point they paused. Then, go back and read those passages again to see if a change is warranted. The fact is, you are your own worst critic at times, and this is one of those times. Think about it, if there is an error with your sentence flow, and you “should” have caught it, you would have, but you didn’t. Having more than one person read your work is also a good idea, but as indicated above, no written work is perfect, so leave perfection behind and merely aim to write in as clear a way as possible
- Time heals all “words” – The second practice is connected to the first, but the person reading it again is you. I suggest you take some time in between readings. Oftentimes, once a piece of writing is complete, if you leave a day or two, or even longer if you have time, in between the time you wrote it and when you read it again, you will find things you want to change to make your writing clearer.
- Connecting your dots – The third practice is to make sure your writing is connected. This applies to sentences, paragraphs, and body. Think of your work as a chain which pulls your idea/thesis closer to the person reading it as they go through it. It is important that none of the links in this chain fail. A sentence ought to be connected to the one that preceded it, a paragraph to the one before, and this applies to chapters as well.
These are a few ways to get you on the path to writing more clearly.
If you have any questions about what I have written here, send me a message — happy to make the meaning clearer. You can find my contact info here.
A passage from The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
[Aboard the vessel Quaker City headed for Europe in 1867]
I picked up a good deal of information during the afternoon. At one time I was climbing up the quarterdeck when the vessel’s stem was in the sky; I was smoking a cigar and feeling passably comfortable. Somebody ejaculated:
“Come, now, that won’t answer. Read the sign up there – NO SMOKING ABAFT THE WHEEL!”
It was Captain Duncan, chief of the expedition. I went forward, of course. I saw a long spyglass lying on a desk in one of the upper-deck state-rooms back of the pilot-house and reached after it – there was a ship in the distance.
“Ah, ah – hands off! Come out of that!”
I came out of that. I said to a deck-sweep – but in a low voice: “Who is that overgrown pirate with the whiskers and the discordant voice?”
“It’s Captain Bursley – executive officer – sailing master.”
I loitered about awhile, and then, for want of something better to do, fell to carving a railing with my knife. Somebody said, in an insinuating, admonitory voice:
“Now, say – my friend – don’t you know any better than to be whittling the ship all to pieces that way? You ought to know better than that.”
I went back and found the deck sweep.
“Who is that smooth-faced, animated outrage yonder in the fine clothes?”
“That’s Captain L****, the owner of the ship – he’s one of the main bosses.”
In the course of time I brought up on the starboard side of the pilot-house and found a sextant lying on a bench. Now, I said, they “take the sun” through this thing; I should think I might see that vessel through it. I had hardly got it to my eye when someone touched me on the shoulder and said deprecatingly:
“I’ll have to get you to give that to me, Sir. If there’s anything you’d like to know about taking the sun, I’d as soon tell you as not – but I don’t like to trust anybody with that instrument. If you want any figuring done – Aye, aye, sir!”
He was gone to answer a call from the other side. I sought the deck-sweep.
“Who is that spider-legged gorilla yonder with the sanctimonious countenance?”
“It’s Captain Jones, sir – the chief mate.”
“Well. This goes clear away ahead of anything I ever heard of before. Do you – now I ask you as a man and a brother – do you think I could venture to throw a rock here in any given direction without hitting a captain of this ship?”
“Well, sir, I don’t know – I think likely you’d fetch the captain of the watch maybe, because he’s a-standing right yonder in the way.”
I went below – meditating and a little downhearted. I thought, if five cooks can spoil a broth, what may not five captains do with a pleasure excursion.
Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1869; 1899), chapter 3, 63-65.
You can read more selected passages from notable authors here.
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