Monthly Archives: October 2020

How to Write Prose

"This is an instruction book."
- Oliver Senior
How to Draw Hands

Prose is language taken for granted. It assumes that the reader is capable of understanding what the writer has to say. It deploys concepts; it does not invent them. “Great prose,” said Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “is the art of capturing a meaning which until then had never been objectified and of rendering it accessible to everyone who speaks the same language.” But this, of course, requires the writer for the most part to use resources that are already accessible to the reader, and, in any case, most of us are not “great” prose writers. We’re just making do with what we’ve been given; we refer to familiar things in familiar ways. In our prose, we take the world of objects for granted and draw attention to the things that interest us. We expect the reader to get our meaning.

Oliver Senior takes a similar approach in his wonderful little manual, How to Draw Hands. “It assumes,” he tells us, “that the difficulty encountered by the student is that of representation by drawing of a familiar yet highly complex piece of physical mechanism.” We all know a hand when we see one — the “back of my own hand” is the epitome of familiar things — and yet drawing one is, as Senior reminds us, notoriously difficult. While a drawing takes perception, if you will, for granted, representing a three-dimensional hand on a two-dimensional surface using lines and shading is by no means easy. It can be done well and badly. And we can get better at it.

Already on the first page, Senior delivers one of my favorite long sentences in the English language. (For a long sentence to be truly good its length must not merely be handled masterfully but must itself serve a purpose. I’ll let you decide whether it’s as good as I think it is.)

If, however, the artist finds himself constrained, by any consideration of expression, treatment or style, or by his deference to the peculiar nature and limitations of his tools and materials, to adopt or invent a convention or a symbol and to substitute the semblance of a bunch of bananas or a bent fork for a representation of the human hand, then the particular problem dealt with in this book does not arise; and its author here maintains a respectful silence in the presence of matters beyond its scope. (P. 7)

If you’re an academic writer, this should immediately strike a chord. How often are we not tempted to put the literary equivalent of a bent fork or a bunch of bananas — a polysyllabic bit of jargon — in the place of clear description of the object or situation that we’re really talking about? This is rarely because the technical term is more precise; it is simply because it seems adequate, and of course easier, at the time. Sure, it looks like a bunch of badly drawn bananas, but “everyone knows” we mean it to be a hand.

This recourse to convention and symbol is, in fact, a highly “prosaic” move. It takes the imagination of the viewer for granted, as it should, and is therefore not in itself illegitimate. In our writing, we constantly have to decide whether to provide a detailed description of something or to invoke a conventional symbol for the same thing. Sometimes the details matter (the hands, even the fingers, are doing something very specific that must be shown). But do remember that, even when the details don’t matter, a good description is sometimes better than an abstract symbol. Even if you want to say only that watchmaking is intricate work, you might want describe the watchmaker actually assembling a mechanism. Your meaning may be no less accessible to the reader and the image will be clearer.

There’s no simple rule to follow here. As Senior reminds us, “the better drawing is not the more elaborated attempt to reproduce the visual appearance of the subject, but that which is better informed” (pp. 7-8). “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about,” said Hemingway, “he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them” (Death in the Afternoon, p. 183.) Good prose, let us say, takes the language for granted, not the reader’s patience. Next week, I’ll being seeing where these ideas can lead.

Image credit: Paul Cézanne, detail from Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (Source:

A Love of Writing

C. W. Eckersberg, Vesta-templet i Rom, 1814-1816
What thou lovest well remains,
                              the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage. (Ezra Pound)

Many years ago, I was talking to a writing instructor when she suddenly confided to me that she hated writing. I was taken aback but it was an illuminating moment. It explained why we disagreed about whatever pedagogical issue we were discussing. She was trying to help students survive something she hated and I was trying to help them become good at something I love. Both of us had our students’ best interests at heart, of course, but we approached their problems in very different ways. Norman Mailer once said of Diana Trilling that she read him with her “full and specific sympathy,” which, if I recall, was a nice way of saying that he thought she had misread him. Likewise, I think writing instructors feel a great deal of sympathy, and even empathy, for their students. Let me be specific about mine.

I know that writing is hard and I, too, find it difficult at times. Most of the time, however, I have given myself a task I think I will enjoy in the moment of writing, a difficulty I can handle. Mostly, it’s not the writing that I hate; it’s the inability to decide what to say. But that inability is only something I experience for a few minutes at the end of each day; then I stop worrying and begin to relax. I try to avoid sitting in front the machine for hours on end with nothing on my mind, hoping for inspiration. Usually, I don’t even sit down if I haven’t made up my mind about what I’m writing. So though I sometimes suffer terrible bouts of indecision, I don’t experience it as part of the writing; it’s part of the thinking process, the research process, the learning process. And it doesn’t feel loathsome there, but entirely natural. I try to protect the writer in me from frustration because I know that the writer isn’t to blame for my inability to understand something. If I know something, I know also that I can write it down. If I can’t write about something, it’s because I still have something to learn. Instead of hating writing, that is, I simply resolve to do something else that I love too, namely, learning.

I know I’m being annoyingly cheerful about all of this. But I think it’s important to tell people, and especially students (who may one day become scholars), that they don’t have to be miserable when they write. Many writers leave the impression that this is necessary. Some of our greatest novelists are famous sufferers for “the craft” — Flaubert and Proust come to mind. Many academics are too ready to take precisely those authors as role models and I strongly discourage this. Even Henry Miller laughed at his younger, suffering self, who thought he was receiving dictations from the angels (or, perhaps, cosmological demons). “I was so in love with the idea of being a writer I could scarcely write,” he said. Much better, he tells us, to work like Blaise Cendrars (“Two hours a day, before dawn, and the rest of the day to oneself”) or like Rémy de Gourmont (who applied the same strategy to his reading). But sometimes, I grant, the morning is just too beautiful to surrender to the machine. So be it.

It is my philosophy that being able to do something well implies knowing how to enjoy it. If you hate writing it’s because you’re not — not yet — doing it right, and it’s probably because you’re trying to use it for a purpose it isn’t suited for. “If he’s using his mind to bend those spoons,” said James Randi of Uri Geller, “he’s doing it the hard way.” Though it sounds counter-intuitive, the same is true of writing: if you’re using your mind to write your papers you’re doing it the hard way. Use your hands. Teach them to write down whatever you’ve go on your mind, and then use your mind to satisfy your curiosity, to learn. Your mind already loves to learn. Your hands can learn to love writing, but not if you insist on learning ideas while you’re doing it. Put a weekend between the part of you that learns the truth and the part of you that writes it down, between the knowing and the writing. What thou lovest well remains.

Image credit: C. W. Eckersberg, The Vesta Temple in Rome, 1814-1816, Source: Nivaagaard Collection.