Writing Right with Dmitri: Writing That's Good for Something
You may have heard the saying of Henry David Thoreau, 'Be not simply good. Be good for something.' We can apply this to our writing, big-time.
A search through the history of this website might reveal to the discerning reader a period, a few years back, when some h2g2ers kept trying to write better and better. Nothing wrong with that, you say, and I agree. However, their idea of 'better' – influenced, no doubt, by bossy English teachers – was long-winded and overintellectualised. It looked suspiciously like purple prose. In fact, the mauver it got, the better they liked it. This sort of thing got tiresome after awhile, and so they all retired in a fit of mutual exhaustion.
What's wrong with that kind of writing? Nothing at all. People win prizes for that sort of writing. Think William Faulkner, John Updike, William Golding, etc, etc.
But which would you rather read, if you wanted to learn something?
The furze itself became a broad surface of gold, beautiful to look down upon, with islands of tenderest birch green interspersed, and willows in which the sedge-reedling chattered. They used to say in the country that cuckoos were getting scarce, but here the notes of the cuckoo echoed all day long, and the birds often flew over the house. Doves cooed, blackbirds whistled, thrushes sang, jays called, wood-pigeons uttered the old familiar notes in the little copse hard by. Even a heron went over now and then, and in the evening from the window I could hear partridges calling each other to roost.
Richard Jefferies, Nature Near London, 1905.
This is a Cattle Egret, Bubulcus ibis. Although called an egret, this bird actually seems to be closer related to the herons, of the genus Ardea. This is a bird I know very well. It is extremely abundant here in South Africa. Cattle egrets are often seen following cattle, hence the name. They will snatch up grasshoppers and other insects stirred up by the grazing cattle. But these egrets are often seen on their own … they can hunt quite well enough without bovine assistance. They prefer fairly short and sparse grass, where they can easily spot the little critters they eat.
Willem, Colours of Wildlife: Cattle Egret
See? It is possible to talk about nature while at the same time being:
- Not purple.
This is writing that isn't merely good – although it is certainly that – but also good for something. It's good for teaching us things we want (and need) to know. Which is why we voluntarily read this. Unlike all that purple prose, which you have to be guilted into reading by the author.
The ancient Romans did that, you know. They were ALL self-published. Rich, retired senators paid to have their effusions copied on parchment. Then they gifted their friends. Generations of schoolkids have echoed the sentiments of these friends.
Latin is a dead language, dead as it can be,
First it killed the Romans, and now it's killing me.
The difference between this aggressive dilletantism and real writing is not, dear friends, whether you win prizes. Or even get paid. (The check is in the mail, they say, honest.) It's in the professionalism of the work.
And professionalism keeps the audience in mind. What do they need to know? How do you capture – and KEEP – their interest? Are you nattering on for your own benefit, or are you reaching the reader?
You remember that schoolteacher who used to moan, 'I'm not standing up here for my health, you know'? You need to think like that. If you're talking to yourself, put it in a private journal and don't share it. If you want to talk to someone else, worry less about the mot juste and more about whether you're having the right effect. Even if it isn't fancy.
That reminds me of the lovely old country preacher I met once. He preached a sermon about a bull-tongue plough. It was a homely object, he pointed out, but it did the job. Brother Cobb believed that the bull-tongue plough fulfilled Jesus' instruction to 'be perfect, as my Father is perfect'.
I think our writing should be like that. Perfect. Meaning: perfectly tailored for its purpose. You want to make people laugh? Learn the techniques of funny writing. You want to keep 'em on the edge of their seats? Figure out how to build suspense. Don't worry about the elaborate prose, your style will come along ass you polish your tales.
You want to inform, instruct, and inspire? Let me tell you about the film I saw last night. It came out in 2014, and it's already on Netflix, USA, so you know it isn't going to win any Oscars. The cast could best be described as 'a dozen veteran actors, hordes or re-enactors, and a school full of self-conscious cadets.' The dialogue isn't going to go into cult film annals. It's utilitarian, though period-correct. But Field of Lost Shoes is a perfectly wonderful film.
The script was written by Dave Kennedy and Thomas Farrell. No, I've never heard of them, either, but they deserve a mention, because we're here to talk about good writing, and theirs is good. They get all the details right, for a change: when the soldiers pray, the leader begins, 'Heavenly Father…' That's a small thing, but exactly correct. Everybody talks period, and you don't keep thinking these teenagers are hiding mobiles somewhere.
The story is true: yes, there really is a military school called Virginia Military Institute (VMI). These old military schools grew up around state militia armouries, and provided good educations in engineering. Stonewall Jackson taught at VMI. And it's really true that in 1864, the cadets had to go to war at New Market, Virginia. That these teenage boys faced the Union Army, and made it run away. And yes, I've read up, and Franz Sigel wasn't a very good general. He was no more effective against Breckinridge than he had been against the Prussians.
This film lacks pizzazz. It lacks star power, though Tom Skerritt makes a great Ulysses S Grant. It does not scream 'Oscar'. But it's an amazing film. Those are the real places where this really happened. Okay, more or less. Somehow, they managed to get that motel out of the frame, but you get the idea. That's what the Shenandoah Valley looks like. And for once – and I can hear history teachers across the nation cheering – a pre-battle ball doesn't look glamorous. It looks like what it was: a sad little sock-hop, with tentative teenagers trying out their new sexual roles while secretly being scared out of their wits. And not sure what was more frightening, the Yankees or the opposite gender. Who cares if they're in crinolines and butternut? They could have been in jeans and running shoes. You can feel with those kids, and you care deeply when some of them die the next day.
The purpose of that film was not to win Hollywood fame. The writers will leave that to Denzel and co. The purpose was to tell an important story. How important is that story, you ask? Well, students at that college have commemorated the sacrifice of those boys every year on the anniversary since 1887. And what better way to show young people that theories, political movements, and all sorts of other ideas have consequences? If you get a chance to watch this film, listen to the young ones explaining to General Breckinridge, former Vice President of the US, why war represents the failure of his life's work as a politician.
So, do we aim for perfection in our writing? Of course we do. Does perfection mean high and mighty, exalted purple prose? No, indeedy. At least, not unless that's the audience you're trying to reach. Otherwise, figure out who you're talking to. And learn the skills you need to reach them better.