Monday, November 15, 2010

Becoming a Writer: Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson, Streatham, SW16Image by Ewan-M via Flickr
Samuel Johnson wrote in The Adventurer (No. 85. Tuesday, 28 August 1753):
To fix the thoughts by writing, and subject them to frequent examinations and reviews, is the best method of enabling the mind to detect its own sophism, and keep it on guard against the fallacies which it practices on others; in conversation we naturally diffuse our thoughts, and in writing we contract them; method is the excellence of writing, and unconstraint the grace of conversation.
When writing one has to be careful with our sentences as we lay them down since they will stand as mute testimony of our thinking, of our mind, of our personality. As Samuel Johnson says above, we must subject what we write to close examination, revise, check, and recheck to make sure that we don’t deceived ourselves or our readers.

For many years, I’ve made it a habit of not publishing anything ‘fresh off the press.’ That is, once I write an article I put it aside for a few days, and then, and only then I pick it up and revised it. Not only do I find grammatical, syntactical, and rhetorical errors, but also sophisms and fallacies.

How wise are Samuel Johnson’s words!

Conversation can be wide and deep as an ocean and as abundant in themes and topics as the flora and fauna that it contains. But in writing we can only deal but with a few selected topics. And as we write them we strive for precision and terseness. Prune we must.

“Method is the excellence of writing.” My method of waiting a few days for revision has served me well over the years, not because I can add new things, or embellish on what I wrote, but because as I revise, contract, and prune, I think of my readers: far be it from me to have my mind ‘practice fallacies’ on them.

When I read a mediocre book, to compensate for the bad time I pick up Samuel Johnson's Selected Essays and read one of them, and in no time I even out the bad with the good. Never have I been disappointed by any of his essays. What I like the most about this man is his total concern with ethical writing. And why not? A moral life is the road to happiness.

The only writing textbook I consult is Mary Duffy's e-book: Sentence Openers.

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