Learning from literature

October 5, 2014

There are loads of style guides out there, all designed to turn you into the next Pulitzer prizewinner. Some of the good ones – like Strunk and White’s much-loved Elements of Style –  offer some really useful advice about things like grammar. But, for me, there’s one piece of advice that all aspiring writers should heed above all others: Read.

Read loads. Read great novels. Read newspapers, blogs, science journals. And whenever you come across a passage that really resonates with you – some writing that really chimes with you, giving you a jolt of excitement or a tug of longing – read it back again. Try and work out what the writer is doing to make you feel that way.

I thought about this on a recent holiday, where I was working my way through the complete collection of Roald Dahl’s short stories. Slipped casually into a story about a female-phobic parson is the most beautiful piece of writing advice, reminding writers that varying your sentence lengths is the way to create rhythm and dynamism in your work. It goes like this:

“I spend many hours each day playing with my sentences. I regard each sentence as a little wheel, and my ambition lately has been to gather several hundred of them together at once and fit them all end to end, with the cogs interlocking, like gears, but each wheel a different size, each turning at a different speed. Now and again I try to put a really big one right next to a very small one in such a way that the big one, turning slowly, will make the small one spin so fast that it hums. Tricky, that.”

Dahl is telling us to use long sentences to make the short ones stand out. And, in explaining the technique, he proves that it works. Clever, right? Best of all, it wasn’t part of a book that I read for self-improvement – it was part of a story I read for love.

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