How to Write: Favorite Quotations

“Easy writing makes damned hard reading.”
—Lord Byron (as quoted in Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America 57 (1945)).*

“Just as you cannot make your personality interesting by trying to be original, so you cannot make your style, which is an expression of your personality, interesting by trying to emphasize it or beautiful by trying to adorn it.”
—C.E.M. Joad, The Bookmark 93 (1926; repr. 1946).*

“An unflagging desire to teach oneself—that is the essential. Writing cannot be taught …  Writing can only be self-taught.”
—Gorham Munson, The Written Word 18 (rev. ed. 1949).*

“A skillful variety, in phrasing, in the ordering of the parts of a sentence, and in the ordering of the sentences themselves, is a quality of beauty as easy to notice as it is hard to emulate.”
—Paul M. Fulcher, “The Seven Lamps of Style,” in The Foundations of English Style 3, 13 (Paul M. Fulcher ed., 1927).*

“‘I have made this a long letter because I haven’t the time to make it shorter.'”
—Blaise Pascal (as quoted in Gary Blake & Robert W. Bly, The Elements of Technical Writing 7 (Natalie Chapman ed., 1993)).*

“Churchill reports that the most valuable training he ever received in rhetoric was in the diagraming of sentences. Think of it! Yet the diagraming of a sentence, regardless of the grammatical system, can be a live subject as soon as one asks not simply ‘How is this sentence put together?’ but rather ‘Why is it put together in this way?’ or ‘Could the rhetorical balance and hence the desired persuasion be better achieved by writing it differently?'”
—Wayne C. Booth, “The Rhetorical Stance” (1963), in Contemporary Rhetoric 70, 79 (W. Ross Winterowd ed., 1975).*

“The first step in composition is, then, for the writer to decide what is his purpose. We often say to some vague talker, ‘I can’t see what you are driving at!’ Because he has failed to centralize his thought around one definite idea or guiding purpose, we are confused when we try to follow him. Even good composition must have a central idea at which the writer ‘drives.'”
—Donald Davidson, American Composition and Rhetoric 20 (1939).*

“Brevity is not only the soul of wit, but the soul of making oneself agreeable and of getting on with people, and, indeed, of everything that makes life worth living. So precious a thing, however, cannot be got without more expense and trouble than most of us have the moral wealth to lay out.”
—Samuel Butler, The Note-Books of Samuel Butler 98 (1912; repr. 1926).*

“The ending of an essay should be brief, and it should draw attention to the central part of your thesis. It should never be glued to the body of your paper with a deadly, mechanical phrase such as ‘in conclusion,’ ‘thus we have seen,’ or ‘thus it is clear.’ For a long essay (but almost never for a short one) a straightforward summary of major points is often effective. If your essay builds to a conclusion, its ending may be the thesis sentence itself.”
—Steward La Casce & Terry Belanger, The Art of Persuasion 30 (1972).*

“This is characteristic of all thoughtful writing, that the author is interested not only in what is now but in what was or will be, what is in any other respect, what might be or ought to be—what he does mean and what he does not mean—in a word, in distinctions.”
—W.K. Wimsatt Jr., The Prose Style of Samuel Johnson 38 (1941; repr. 1963).*

“Inability to write sentences stems not from the writer’s lack of subject matter (everyone is the repository of an infinitude of subject matter), but from his not knowing how to get the subject matter into structures. The problem at levels beyond the sentence is, I think, exactly the same.”
—W. Ross Winterowd, “The Grammar of Coherence” (1970), in Contemporary Rhetoric 225, 233 (W. Ross Winterowd ed., 1975).*

“A device like alliteration must be used cautiously. In abundance, it becomes tiresome. Overdone, it interferes with understanding.”
—Royal Bank of Canada, The Communication of Ideas 21 (rev. ed. 1972).*

“No other species of writing ranges over so wide and varied a field of topics [as the essay]—nothing less than that of all others combined—and none other allows such freedom and diversity in the handling.”
—Brainerd Kellogg, A Text-Book on Rhetoric 226 (1881).*

“Writing is rewriting. Most writers accept rewriting as a condition of their craft; it comes with the territory. It is not, however, seen as a burden but as an opportunity by many writers. . . . Rewriting is the difference between the dilettante and the artist, the amateur and the professional, the unpublished and the published. William Gass testifies, ‘I work not by writing but rewriting.’ Dylan Thomas states, ‘Almost any poem is fifty to a hundred revisions — and that’s after it’s well along.'”
—Donald M. Murray, “Internal Revision: A Process of Discovery,” in About Language 30 (William H. Roberts & Gregoire Turgeon eds., 2d ed. 1989).*

“Whenever I read a book or a passage that particularly pleased me, in which a thing was said or an effect rendered with propriety, in which there was either some conspicuous force or some happy distinction in the style, I must sit down at once and set myself to ape that quality … That, like it or not, is the way to learn to write; whether I have profited or not, that is the way. It was so Keats learned, and there was never a finer temperament for literature than Keats’s.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson, Learning to Write 2-3, 4-5 (1888; repr. 1920).*

“There are two kinds of editing: editing for correctness and consistency, and editing for sense and effect. The two kinds of editing require two separate abilities, which are sometimes, but by no means always, found in one editor.”
—George Stevens, “Author’s Nursemaid” (1942), in A Reader for Writers 188, 190 (William Targ ed., 1951).*

“Every composition, whatever its length, ought to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This deceptively simple observation will yield some insight into the art of composition if we consider some of its implications.”
—Christopher Lasch, Plain Style 45 (Stewart Weaver ed., 2002).*

“If you go through any newspaper or magazine and look for active, kicking verbs in the sentences, you will realize that this lack of well used verbs is the main trouble with modern English writing. Almost all nonfiction nowadays is written in a sort of pale, colorless sauce of passives and infinitives, motionless and flat as paper.”
—Rudolf Flesch, The Art of Plain Talk 67 (1946).*

“Style has many components. The difficulty of mastering style is that they are devoid of absolute existence. Rhythm, melody, vocabulary, and composition do not live independent lives of their own; they are interconnected like chess pieces. Just as it is impossible to move a pawn without changing the position of all the other pieces on the board, so it is impossible to ‘correct’ in a literary work the rhythm alone or the vocabulary alone without affecting the other components of style. When I cross out a word, I change the structure of the sentence, its music, its rhythm, its relationship with its environment.”
—Konstantin Fedin, “Notebook,” in Maxim Gorky, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexei Tolstoy, and Konstantin Fedin on the Art and Craft of Writing 256, 257 (Alex Miller trans., 1972).*

“University people complain that the undergraduate cannot write ‘plain, straightforward English,’ but as soon as they begin to say what particularly they find amiss we hear of nothing but spelling mistakes or trifles of punctuation … One seldom reads of the gross shortcomings one knows will be there, which matter so much more—the failure to construct sentences and paragraphs lucidly, the waste of words, the unnecessary adjectives, the uncomprehended and stale metaphors … Hence the failure of speaker and hearer, writer and reader, to realize that words are passing between them with no meaning at all, or with meaning so false that only these poor devices conceal the falsity.”
—T.W.H. Holland, The Nature of English 3 (1967).*

“The right word is as important to the writer as the right note to the composer or the right line to the painter … A writer needs an ‘ear’ as much as a musician does. And without this ear, he is lost and groping in a forest of words, where all the trees look much alike.”
—Sydney J. Harris, Last Things First 266 (1961).*

“The connexion of each paragraph with that which precedes and that which follows it should be at once apparent. Though … the paragraph may in one sense be regarded as complete in itself, it is complete only as each link in a chain is complete.”
—A. Cruse, English Composition 29 (1923).*

“A real writer learns from earlier writers the way a boy learns from an apple orchard—by stealing what he has a taste for and can carry off.”
Archibald MacLeish, “On the Teaching of Writing,” in Writing in America 88, 90 (John Fischer & Robert B. Silvers eds., 1960).*

“Fear is at the root of most bad writing. Writers should throw back their shoulders, stick out their chins, and put their writing in charge. Try any goddamn thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it.”
—Steven King, On Writing

“I have known hypercritical readers who would let the presence of a comma where none should be, or its absence where needed, derail their attention and wreck a noble train of thought. And I have known others, not critical enough for their own well-being, too easily swayed, too readily yielding their faith, neglecting to require of the author proof of his right to their confidence.”
—Edward N. Teall, Books and Folks 173 (1921).

“When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing.”
Enrique Jardiel Poncela

“Nothing reveals fuzzy thinking as effectively as making yourself write out the thesis for the paper in a single sentence.”
Elizabeth McMahan, A Crash Course in Composition 6 (2d ed. 1977).*

“The real reason for good usage in writing is that if you do not achieve it, your educated reader will be thinking of you, not of the point you’re trying to make.”
John W. Velz, professor of English from 1954 to 1996.*

“Beginning writers want to start with large abstractions, in the mistaken belief that the bigger the topic is, the more there is to say about it. It doesn’t work out that way. Usually the first sentence of the essay tells whether the writer knows this or not.”
Jack Rawlins, “Five Principles for Getting Good Ideas,” in About Language 10, 13 (William H. Roberts & Gregoire Turgeon eds., 2d ed. 1989).*

“As sentences should follow one another in harmonious sequence, so the paragraphs must fit onto one another like the automatic couplings of railway carriages.”
—Winston Churchill, My Early Life: A Roving Commission 211-12 (1930).*

“If paragraphs come in their natural order, you will easily make them follow one another smoothly. Your handling of the subject will show you how to smooth the transition from one paragraph to the next.”
Eric Partridge, English: A Course for Human Beings 147-48 (1949).*

“When you are really full of your subject, the order of presentation will come to you naturally.”
—David Woodbury

“Most readers (including you) know when your concluding paragraph is merely a pro forma bundle of words; use the conclusion to show the reader there is a thinking mind behind those words.”
—Jeanne F. Campanelli & Jonathan L. Price, Write in Time 113 (1991).*

“No long complex sentence will hold up without parallel construction. Paralleling can be very simple. Any word will seek its own kind, noun to noun, adjective to adjective, infinitive to infinitive.”
—Sheridan Baker, The Practical Stylist 101 (8th ed. 1998).*

“Clear writing depends on what you do before and after the first draft.”
—Jerome H. Perlmutter, A Practical Guide to Effective Writing 14 (1965).*

“Writing should be concrete. It should evoke images and refer to something the reader can identify with particular experiences. A general concept like motion is interesting to a philosopher, but an ordinary reader wants to know what is moving, how fast, whether it is going toward him or away from him, and what effect the motion of this object will have on his income or his likelihood of getting a good night’s sleep.”
Sumner Ives, A New Handbook for Writers 317 (1960).*

“In our culture effective communication is nearly everybody’s business, and from politics to love rhetoric shows a power we must recognize.”
John E. Jordan, Using Rhetoric 3 (1965).*

“Poor writers are invariably pleased with their own work. Good writers are hard on themselves. The ability to discover for oneself what has gone wrong with a sentence, a paragraph, or the organization of an essay is indispensable to success.”
Kenneth S. Rothwell, Questions of Rhetoric and Usage 6 (1971).*

“If you don’t know what to write next, shift your viewpoint. A photographer finds that moving only a pace this way or that changes the picture in his viewfinder. Try a little original thinking, too … It grafts new limbs on to an old trunk.”
—Royal Bank of Canada, The Communication of Ideas 75-76 (rev. ed. 1972).*

“All your first drafts will need revision, but the middle and end of them may not need a great deal. You had steam up when you wrote them; you were commencing to feel what you wanted to say. But watch your beginning. That was written when arm and brain were cold.”
—Dorothy Canfield Fisher, “Theme Writing” (1935), in Bridges: Readings for Writers 235, 237 (Donna Gorrell ed., 1985).*

“Some words are splendid sounds, apart from everything else. Indeed, sound is never out of the question when either the quality of a single word is being considered, or the quality of several words as associated in a sentence.”
—Henry Bett, Some Secrets of Style 213-14 (1932).*

“If you’ve written a paragraph that sounds heavy and tortured, put down your pencil and ask yourself: ‘If I were actually speaking these thoughts to a friend, how would I probably say them?’ Then go ahead and talk them out loud, and when you’re finished, write down as nearly as you can recall what you said. The chances are good that many of your talked-out sentences will be an improvement over the earlier, labored version of them.”
John R. Trimble, Writing with Style 81-82 (1975).*

“The most plausible way to unify your paragraphs is to concentrate on building each one on a thought expressed in the first sentence.”
—Richard Marius, A Writer’s Companion 52 (1985).*

“One person’s neutral word may be negative and offensive to another, and it is sometimes difficult to predict how one’s words may be misinterpreted.”
—Dennis Baron, Declining Grammar and Other Essays on the English Vocabulary 186 (1989).*

“Fundamentally, it is good manners to take whatever measures are needed to see that the other fellow gets your point without unnecessary trouble. Remember that the reader uses a good bit of energy just in mechanically following your text.”
—Gorham Munson, The Written Word 38 (rev. ed. 1949).*

“Your own point of view is your special way of looking at things. It is a necessity. It is also unavoidable. The good writer assumes it boldly. Timid writers try to hide it and become wishy-washy.”
—Ernst Jacobi, Writing at Work: Dos, Don’ts, and How Tos 24 (1976).*

“A bad or mistaken name may lead to wrong rules which may have a detrimental influence on the free use of language, especially in writing. Thus the term ‘preposition,’ or rather the unfortunate knowledge of the Latin etymology of this word, is responsible for that absurd aversion to putting a preposition at the end of a sentence which many schoolmasters and newspaper editors profess in utter ignorance of the principles and history of their own language.”
—Otto Jespersen, The Philosophy of Grammar 342 (1934; repr. 1965).*

“Unnecessary words waste space and the reader’s time, and they make strong writing weak.”
—Gary Blake & Robert W. Bly, The Elements of Technical Writing 65 (1993).*

“Get your speaking voice in your writing. You would never say, ‘This radio needed repair from the date of purchase’; you would say, ‘This radio hasn’t worked since I bought it.’ In talking, you tend to use short sentences, plain words, active voice, and specific details. You don’t worry about beginning a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but.’ You don’t use words like ‘shall’ or ‘secondly’ or ‘societal.’ You would never say ‘My reasons were the following’ or ‘Quiet was the night.’
—Daniel McDonald, The Language of Argument 238 (5th ed. 1986).*

“Make writing a habit; that is the first step in being a good writer. Make revising a habit, too. See your sentences as puzzles. The object of the puzzle is to make every sentence as efficient as you can.”
—Richard Marius, A Writer’s Companion 177 (1985).*

“View your reader as a companionable friend—someone with a warm sense of humor and a love of simple directness. Write like you’re actually talking to that friend, but talking with enough leisure to frame your thoughts concisely and interestingly.”
—John R. Trimble, Writing with Style 73 (2d ed. 2000).*

“The abiding principle of good coherence is providing transitions. All this means is that you put up verbal signs showing your reader that you’re moving to another point.” Elizabeth McMahan, A Crash Course in Composition 31 (2d ed. 1977).*

“A perfectly healthy sentence, it is true, is extremely rare.”
—Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), in Classics in Composition 136, 137 (Donald E. Hayden ed., 1969).*

“Words have weight, sound and appearance; it is only by considering these that you can write a sentence that is good to look at and good to listen to.”
—William Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up (1938), in Classics in Composition 219, 225 (Donald E. Hayden ed., 1969).*

“Behind every good letter, article, or report is a writer who has taken time to figure things out—to select, analyze, and organize his ideas.”
—Jerome H. Perlmutter, A Practical Guide to Effective Writing 13 (1965).*

“The art of writing, like the art of love, runs all the way from a kind of routine hard to distinguish from piling bricks to a kind of frenzy closely related to delirium tremens.”
—H.L. Mencken, Minority Report: H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks 18 (1956).*

“Be a winemaker of writing: seek perfect balance between simplicity, effectiveness, and character.”
—Philippe Kéroack in an e-mail (May 14, 2013).

“Elegant writing saves money.”
—Heidi Waterhouse, business card.

“Words are intervention.”
—Daniya Kamran in a presentation at the Write the Docs conference in Portland, Oregon (April 9, 2013).

“You don’t write because you want to say something. You write because you have something to say.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald

“There’s a tremendous power in using the least amount of information to get a point across.”
—Rick Rubin

“A really good style comes only when a man has become as good as he can be. Style is character.”
—Norman Mailer, in Writers at Work 266 (George Plimpton ed., 3d series, 1968).*

“A good writer is one you can read without breaking a sweat.”
—Patricia T. O’Conner, Woe Is I 195 (1996).*

“It is best to assume a hearer or reader who holds views opposed to those we advocate, as, if we work with the possibility of hostile criticism in mind, we shall be more careful to build up an irrefragable argument than if we work believing that whatever we say will find easy acceptance.”
—Frances M. Perry, An Introductory Course in Argumentation 57 (1906).*

“No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader’s intelligence.”
—William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style 84 (3d ed. 1979).*

“What we call insincerity is the expression of thoughts that do not go to the bottom of our own minds.”
—Oliver Allston (as quoted in Van Wyck Brooks, Opinions of Oliver Allston 294 (1941)).*

“Inexperienced writers often regard punctuation as a tiresome mechanical business to which little attention need be paid. There can be no greater mistake. Correct punctuation is a most important aid to clearness in writing. If you fail to use stops properly, you not only risk having your meaning misunderstood but you cause unnecessary irritation to your reader. Bad punctuation is, in fact, a form of bad manners.”
—M. Alderton Pink, Craftsmanship in Writing 26 (1960).*

“Whenever you can shorten a sentence, do. And one always can. The best sentence? The shortest.”
—Gustave Flaubert as quoted in Rudolf Flesch, The Art of Readable Writing 119 (1949; repr. 1967).*

“Stilted style, like all fake styles, is a confused acknowledgment of timid admiration.”
—Sidney Cox, Indirections for Those Who Want to Write 49 (1947).*

“Conciseness does not consist in using few words, but in covering the subject in the fewest possible words that will express what is in the writer’s mind.”
—Royal Bank of Canada, The Communication of Ideas 114 (rev. ed. 1972).*

“Deleting IS writing.”
—Diem Burden on Twitter, August 12, 2013.

“Good speech shows an easy consonance and harmony between form and meaning, expression and content, manner and matter.”
—Simeon Potter, Modern Linguistics 166 (2d ed. 1967).*

“One of the easiest ways to write short sentences is to give each sentence just one job.”
—James W. McElhaney, “Writing to the Ear,” ABA J., Dec. 1995, at 74, 76.*

“I get a sentence, an idea, an image, and I start. I don’t know anything beyond it. I follow it.”
—David Rabe

“The best fiction does not arise out of an idea at all, but the idea, or argument, arises out of the human elements and characters as they naturally develop.”
—Letter of Maxwell E. Perkins (3 Oct. 1944) (as quoted in Editors on Editing 297, 298 (Gerald Gross ed., rev. ed. 1985)).*

“Good usage is more necessary in written than in oral discourse. In oral discourse, tone of voice and body language help bridge the chasm of meaninglessness between the speaker and the audience. In writing these helps are absent and the bridge over the chasm must be all the more carefully paved.”
—John W. Velz, professor of English from 1954 to 1996.*

“I write every paragraph four times—once to get my meaning down, once to put in anything I have left out, once to take out anything that seems unnecessary, and once to make the whole thing sound as if I had only just thought of it.”
—Margery Allingham as quoted in Paul R. Reynolds, The Writing and Selling of Non-Fiction 31 (1963).*

“If paragraphs come in their natural order, you will easily make them follow one another smoothly. Your handling of the subject will show you how to smooth the transition from one paragraph to the next.”
—Eric Partridge, English: A Course for Human Beings 147-48 (1949).*

“If forcefulness begins with choice of words, it is never fully achieved without attention to structure—to the way in which sentences, especially, but also paragraphs, are put together. The governing principle is that the strongest stress should fall automatically on the words or elements that contribute most to the fulfillment of the author’s aim.”
—Ellsworth Barnard, English for Everybody 109 (1979).*

“If a writer … knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows … The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”
—Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon 153–154 (1932).

“Some of the worst things ever written have been due to an avoidance of the ordinary word, and the mistaken choice of what the writer thought was a more dignified word or phrase.”
—Henry Bett, Some Secrets of Style 102-03 (1932).*

“A redundant word is an unnecessary word. Considering the high price of newsprint and book stock, we ought to watch for redundancies and pluck them from our writing as if we were plucking ticks off a dog’s back. Redundancies, like ticks, suck the blood from our prose.”
—James J. Kilpatrick, The Writer’s Art (1984).*

“While reducing the volume and cutting the word count is certainly a desired outcome, it isn’t the center of the minimalist agenda. Minimalist advocates understand that people do not want to read and actually do not read anything that does not appear to lead to fulfilling their immediate goals … The minimalist agenda focuses on usefulness and usability … [and requires companies to do] the harder and more time-consuming work of learning about customers.”
—JoAnn T. Hackos, “An Application of the Principles of Minimalism to the
Design of Human-Computer Interfaces,” Common Ground 9:17–22 (1999).

“The greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel … was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. The real thing, the
sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion … would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always.”
—Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon 11–12 (1932).

“Most of us have learned many things about language from others, but generally the wrong things. More likely than not we have acquired ideas and beliefs that do not have facts to back them.”
—Ronald Wardhaugh, Proper English: Myths and Misunderstandings About Language viii (1999).*

“It is impossible to predetermine the exact length of any paragraph, just as it is impossible to predict the length of any essay. Too much depends upon what you want to say and how you want to say it.”
—Lucille Vaughan Payne, The Lively Art of Writing 72 (1965).*

“If you begin a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ (and you should occasionally), don’t put a comma after it. You want to speed up your prose with those words, and the comma would simply cancel out any gain.”
—John R. Trimble, Writing with Style 81 (1975).*

“One of the quickest ways to separate professional copy from all other stuff: look for the skeleton. It will be flimsy at best if an amateur did it. For some reason, amateurs rarely organize their copy before they write; they are strangely allergic to outlines. Why? Maybe laziness, or a misplaced confidence in their ability to construct without a blueprint. On the other hand, seasoned pros never trust their wit; they spend a large chunk of their creative time juggling ideas and possible approaches until it ‘sets’ just so. Then, they write. And it shows.”
—Walter Lubars & Albert J. Sullivan, Guidelines for Effective Writing: Qualities and Formats 25 (1978).*

“Passive voice will always have certain important uses, but remember that you must keep your eye on it at all times or it will drop its ‘o’ and change swiftly from passive voice to passive vice.”
—Lucille Vaughan Payne, The Lively Art of Writing 101 (1965).*

“If a reader senses superfluity in your style, he will begin to skim and thus slip beyond your control, taking whatever his eye happens to light on as the cruxes of argument. On the other hand, if he finds your style compact or even dense, he can always read more slowly. [But] if you are too sparing of words, your prose will be simply cryptic and puzzling.”
— Thomas Cain, Common Sense About Writing 119 (1967).*

“Reader-users read differently than their forebears—they read Twitter to find links to long articles that will interest them; they switch between phone calls and the Kindle app. And yes, they watch video, play games, and listen to music. But language still knits it all together, and words have more work to do than they ever did before.”
—Paul Ford in his foreword to Karen McGrane’s Content Strategy for Mobile (2012).

“It is remarkable how much many striking passages in literature really owe, when we examine them closely, to a memorable opening, or an arresting close, however splendid may be the thoughts and words that lie between.”
—Henry Bett, Some Secrets of Style 136-37 (1932).*

“To be fully useful, documents of more than 25,000 words require an index … A poor index is frequently cited as the major weakness of books that critics otherwise like and admire.”
—Ernst Jacobi, Writing at Work: Dos, Don’ts, and How Tos 166 (1976).*

“Granted—people should have more time to read. Granted—people should look up big words if they don’t understand them. Granted—people should exert extra effort to learn. But they don’t.”
—Jerome H. Perlmutter, A Practical Guide to Effective Writing 23 (1965).*

“All through the life-long process of learning one’s ‘mother-tongue,’ one is liable to apprehend wrongly and to reproduce inexactly.”
—William Dwight Whitney, The Life and Growth of Language 34 (1875; repr. 1979).*

“It is more important for a translator to be a master of the language into which the work is to be rendered than a master of the original language.”
—Lester S. King, Why Not Say It Clearly 156 (1978).*

“Courses requiring students of English to take a serious look at how the English language works or at matters of usage—as opposed to style—will almost certainly be conspicuously absent from [college] departmental offerings.”
—Ronald Wardhaugh, Proper English: Myths and Misunderstandings About Language 170 (1999).*

“Metaphors, like epithets, must be fitting, which means that they must fairly correspond to the thing signified: failing this, their inappropriateness will be conspicuous: the want of harmony between two things is emphasized by their being placed side by side.”
—Aristotle, “On Prose Style, from the Rhetoric,” in The Problem of Style 67, 71 (J.V. Cunningham ed., 1966).*

“Making oneself a writer involves as much discipline as any other art or vocation or profession. In the writing art-profession there are, I think, three aspects of this discipline worth considering. The first and probably the most important one is production discipline, making one’s self write whether one feels like it or not. The second is revision discipline; the third, rejection-slip discipline.”
—Anne Hamilton, How to Revise Your Own Stories vii (1946).*

“Definitions … are like steps cut in a steep slope of ice, or shells thrown on to a greasy pavement; they give us foothold, and enable us to advance, but when we are at our journey’s end we want them no longer.”
—Samuel Butler, “Thought and Language” (1890), in The Importance of Language 13 (Max Black ed., 1962).*

“Anyone who waits to be struck with a good idea has a long wait coming. If I have a deadline for a column or a television script, I sit down at the typewriter and damn well decide to have an idea. There’s nothing magical about the process, no flashing lights. Creativity is a byproduct of hard work.”
—Andy Rooney, Pieces of My Mind vii-viii (1984).*

“Ending a sentence with a preposition can be as dangerous as stepping on a crack in a sidewalk.”
—Allan Metcalf, “Double or Nothing: An End to Final Prepositions,” 62 Am. Speech 182, 182 (1987).*

“Students need to be taught the tools which professional writers have tested for decades, not the ones teachers have turned into painful dogma.”
—Gary Hoffman & Glynis Hoffman, Adios, Strunk and White 7 (1999).*

‘The man I am talking about’ is infinitely better English than ‘The man about whom I am talking,’ as should be apparent to all familiar with good speech, listening to the two forms. Yet legions of our young folk will leave school having firmly implanted in their heads, and alas their use, that for reasons beyond their ken, the more elegant, dressy, scholar-like way of saying it is, ‘The man of whom I am talking’ — no matter how strongly their instincts, bless them, tell them it is unnatural and forced.”
—Richard Burton, Why Do You Talk Like That? 186-87 (1929).*

“Adjectives are used so freely these days that we feel almost naked, robbed, if we don’t get at least a couple.”
—Paul Stevens, “Weasel Words: God’s Little Helpers,” in Language Awareness 74, 84 (Paul Eschholz et al. eds., 2d ed. 1978).*

“‘Efficiency’ does not mean the paper with the shortest length; rather, [it means] the paper that takes readers the shortest time to understand.”
—Michael Alley, The Craft of Scientific Writing 15 (1987).*

“A word may change its form, to any extent, without change of meaning; it may take on an entirely new meaning without change of form. As a matter of fact, the words are few or none which have not done both…”
—William Dwight Whitney, The Life and Growth of Language 49 (1875; repr. 1979).*

“A great deal of writing that comes to our attention is unpleasant to read and fails even to convey clearly what the writer intends to say.”
—M. Alderton Pink, Craftsmanship in Writing 1 (1960).*

“No one can expect to write a finished essay in a single draft, and no one (except the green beginner or the newspaperman who is short of time) ever tries … The only way to iron out the manuscript is to reread it (read it aloud if possible), correct it, revise it, and rewrite it.”
—Sherman Kent, Writing History 69 (1941).*

“Only bores want to express everything, but even bores find it impossible to express everything. Not only is the writer’s art rightly said to consist largely in knowing what to leave in the inkstand, but in the most everyday remarks we suppress a great many things which it would be pedantic to say expressly.”
—Otto Jespersen, The Philosophy of Grammar 309 (1934; repr. 1965).*

“Being precise doesn’t mean compiling details; it means selecting details.”
—Michael Alley, The Craft of Scientific Writing 35 (1987).*

“Maybe the hardest thing in writing is simply to tell the truth about things as we see them.”
—John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters 123 (1969).*

“Language, though perhaps the most remarkable creation of the human race, is so close to us, so intimate a thing, that we rarely stop to consider its true nature.”
—John Mantle Clapp & Homer Heath Nugent, How to Write 16 (1930).*

“Assuming that most people are capable of writing a well-formed sentence, how do you teach them to write two well-formed and properly connected sentences, adding a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, to constitute a well-formed text?”
—Walter Nash, An Uncommon Tongue: The Uses and Resources of English 133 (1992).*

“Generalizations have their place; so have abstract words; but every student will find if he analyzes his style that he is given to using both generalizations and abstractions, when specific statements and concrete words would be much more effective.”
—Percy Marks, Better Themes: A College Text-Book of Writing and Rewriting 147 (1933).*

“A writer who hates the actual writing is as impossible as a lawyer who hates the law or a doctor who hates medicine … a writer who hates the actual writing, who gets no joy out of the creation of magic by words, to me is simply not a writer at all.”
—Raymond Chandler, Letter to Hamish Hamilton (19 Sept. 1951), in Raymond Chandler Speaking 92, 92 (Dorothy Gardiner & Katherine Sorley Walker eds., 1962).*

“Literary men, and the young still more than the old of this class, have commonly a good deal to rescind in their style in order to adapt it to business. But the young, if they be men of sound abilities, will soon learn what is not apt and discard it; which the old will not. The leading rule is to be content to be commonplace—a rule which might be observed with advantage in other writings, but is distinctively applicable to these.”
—Henry Taylor, The Statesman (1836) (as quoted in Sir Ernest Gowers, The Complete Plain Words 105 (1954; repr. 1964)).*

“As Aristotle pointed out long ago, most people do not have the patience or intelligence to follow a logical argument very closely. Most people will be persuaded neither by reason nor by emotion, but by the ethos—the character—of the author.”
—James C. Raymond, Writing (Is an Unnatural Act) 60 (1980).*

“Adjectives should be used sparingly. It is always worth while to go over one’s work and remove some of the adjectives, though this will be done regretfully at first. There are nearly always some adjectives that can be deleted without altering one’s meaning.”
—R.G. Ralph, Put It Plainly 27 (1952).*

“Growth in the art of writing or speaking may be defined simply as a process of becoming increasingly ‘reader-minded’—able, that is, to test one’s own expression for its actual clearness and force to those he intends it for.”
—Sterling Andrus Leonard, English Composition as a Social Problem 14 (1917).*

“The semicolon causes no great difficulty, for the simple reason that the idea of using it does not ordinarily occur to a person until after he has become accustomed to handling involved sentence-structure.”
—Louis Foley, Beneath the Crust of Words 138 (1928).*

“Try to make the quotation a part of your own work; introduce it in your own words; substitute your own paraphrase when it becomes prolix; steel yourself to junking the best passage unless it is relevant; chop up the rest and throw away the remains.”
—Sherman Kent, Writing History 66 (1941).*

“One unfortunate word can sometimes ruin the whole effect of a noble paragraph or a fine verse.”
—Henry Bett, Some Secrets of Style 110 (1932).*

“Writing draws together an astonishing number of mental and physical actions, many of them going on simultaneously as the process unfolds. It is one of the most complicated things we do, and that is why it is always difficult.”
—Richard Marius, A Writer’s Companion 3 (1985).*

“It is easy to affect a pompous style, to use a word twice as big as the thing you want to express: It is not so easy to pitch upon the very word that exactly fits it.”
—William Hazlitt, Table Talk (1821-1822), in Classics in Composition 123, 124 (Donald E. Hayden ed., 1969).*

“If any man wish to write a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts; and if any would write in a noble style, let him first possess a noble soul.”
—Goethe, Conversations with Eckerman (as quoted in The Writer on His Art 83 (Walter Allen ed., 1949)).*

“Good writing is not the perfectly tailored garment of a Personage, perfectly pressed since last he wrote it; it is the rumpled suit of a living person, still relaxing from the strain of his labors, its pockets stuffed with trash and with things worth getting at. And each thing gets its value from the finder.”
—Martin Joos, The Five Clocks 49 (1961; repr. 1967).*

“Every writer, by the way he uses language, reveals something of his spirit, his habits, his capacities, his bias … No writer long remains incognito.”
—William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style 66-67 (3d ed. 1979).*

“Good usage is more necessary in written than in oral discourse. In oral discourse, tone of voice and body language help bridge the chasm of meaninglessness between the speaker and the audience. In writing, these helps are absent and the bridge over the chasm must be all the more carefully paved.”
—John W. Velz, professor of English from 1954 to 1996.*

“When students enter my classes, very often what I end up doing is beating out of them habits they were rewarded for in high school—many of them having to do with excessive abstraction, wordiness, overcomplication, excessive reliance on jargon.”
—David Foster Wallace, Quack This Way 43-44 (2013).*

“You cannot say exactly the same thing in two different ways. Slightly alter the expression, and you slightly alter the idea.”
—Arnold Bennett, “Literary Taste” (1909), in Classics in Composition 200, 201 (Donald E. Hayden ed., 1969).*

“When people object … to idioms that their spouses use at the breakfast table, my reaction tends to be that forgiveness ought to be granted automatically for any lapse of grammar committed in a bathrobe, before the coffee is ready.”
—Barbara Wallraff, Word Court 59 (2000).*

“An obscure and vague manner of expression is always and everywhere a very bad sign. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred it comes from vagueness of thought; and this again almost always means that there is something radically wrong and incongruous about the thought itself—in a word, that it is incorrect. When a right thought springs up in the mind, it strives after expression and is not long in reaching it.”
—Arthur Schopenhauer, “Schopenhauer on Style,” in Best Advice on How to Write 61, 69 (Gorham Munson ed., 1952).*

“It has been said with great truth that a man having something to say, intensely desiring to say it, and burning with the passion to make others accept it, cannot write ill; or, at any rate, in proportion to his powers, his chances of writing ill are indefinitely less than those of a man with little to say and indifferent to its acceptance.”
—Hilaire Belloc, “On Lucidity” (1928), in Essays Old and New 266, 268 (Margaret M. Bryant ed., 1940).*

“Upon the whole, then, figures of speech give no beauty to style: it is when the expression is agreeable to the sense of the speaker and his affection that we admire it.”
—Adam Smith, Lectures of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres 30 (1963).*

“Writing is an art. But, like any art, it depends on craft techniques, which can be taught to anyone who is willing to learn them. They are not easy. Like any craft worth mastering, writing calls for hard work. The tools of the craft are the writer’s hand, brain, heart and senses. They all have to work together to shape up the finished product. Writing thus calls into play the whole personality of the craftsman.”
—Robert Strumpen-Darrie & Charles F. Berlitz, The Berlitz School of Languages 214 (1956).

“If you would learn to use words with force and skill it is well first to use short words as much as you can. It will make your speech crisp and give zest and tang to what you say or write.”
—Frank Gelett Burgess, “Short Words Are Words of Might” (1939), in Weigh the Word 104, 105 (Charles B. Jennings et al. eds., 1957).*

“One piece of advice can be universally handed out, and it applies equally to speaking, understanding, reading, and writing. If in the course of any of these language activities, you run across words whose meaning or use baffles you, don’t by-pass them. Look them up in the dictionary and familiarize yourself with them.”
—Mario Pei, Language for Everybody 303 (1956).*

“The habit of compulsive, premature editing doesn’t just make writing hard. It also makes writing dead. Your voice is damped out by all the interruptions, changes, and hesitations between the consciousness and the page.”
—Peter Elbow, “Freewriting,” in About Language 5, 7 (William H. Roberts & Gregoire Turgeon eds., 2d ed. 1989).*

“Language, one might say, has a kind of inertia that limits the speaker’s freedom to project a distinctive meaning; words, for all their flexibility, mean at any given time what they have come to mean through repeated use and the writer or speaker must do the best he can with these worn counters.”
Max Black, The Labyrinth of Language 88 (1968).*

“Works of art are not so much finished as abandoned. Perhaps poems can be perfect. A short-short story might even be perfectible, as effective and enjoyable for one reader as the next. But novels and other book-length narratives are great rambling things that always contain some flaws. For works of any length, there comes a point when your continued tinkering won’t improve the whole, but will just trade one set of problems for another.”
Bruce Holland Rogers, Word Work 246 (2002).*

“A close reasoner and a good writer in general may be known by his pertinent use of connectives.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 15 May 1833, in 6 Complete Works 467 (W.G.T. Shedd ed., 1844).*

“It is a duty to maintain the continuity of speech that makes the thought of our ancestors easily understood, to conquer Babel every day against the illiterate and the heedless, and to resist the pernicious and lulling dogma that in languagecontrary to what obtains in all other human affairswhatever is is right and doing nothing is for the best.”
Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage: A Guide 30 (1966).*

“‘But’ (not followed by a comma) always heads its turning sentence; ‘Nevertheless’ usually does (followed by a comma). I am sure, however, that ‘however’ is always better buried in the sentence between commas: ‘But’ for the quick turn; the inlaid ‘however’ for the more elegant sweep.”
Sheridan Baker, The Complete Stylist 55-56 (2d ed. 1972).*

“I’ve cut some of my favorite stuff. I have no compassion when it comes to cutting. No pity, no sympathy. Some of my dearest and most beloved bits of writing have gone with a very quick slash, slash, slash … Cutting leads to economy, precision, and a vastly improved script.”
Paddy Chayefsky (as quoted in John Brady, The Craft of the Screenwriter: Interviews with Six Celebrated Screenwriters 55 (1982)).*

“Definitions … are like steps cut in a steep slope of ice, or shells thrown on to a greasy pavement; they give us foothold, and enable us to advance, but when we are at our journey’s end we want them no longer.”
Samuel Butler, “Thought and Language” (1890), in The Importance of Language 13 (Max Black ed., 1962).*

“Sometimes I will stay put in my room for a day trying to get two sentences that will flow, that will seem as if they were always there.”
Maya Angelou, in Conversations with Maya Angelou 59 (Jeffrey M. Elliot ed., 1989).*

“Prose is not necessarily good because it obeys the rules of syntax, but it is fairly certain to be bad if it ignores them.”
Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage: A Guide 22 (1966).*

“When the mind hesitates, grows cold, begins to labor, loses zest, you should suspect instantly a loss of direction. The climax at which you aimed, the proof that was preparing, the point of it all, is no longer so clear as it seemed at first. Go back. Wait until the mind warms again to the idea. Save time by waiting.”
Henry Seidel Canby, Better Writing 83 (1926).*

“The manner in which one writes is the sure test of one’s education. Fairly good speech may be acquired by constant association with the cultured, but writing which is correct and in good taste can be acquired only by practice in writing done in connection with equally careful reading.”
W.C. Morrow, The Logic of Punctuation 4 (1926).*

“Forcing modern speakers of English to not — whoops, not to split an infinitive because it isn’t done in Latin makes about as much sense as forcing modern residents of England to wear laurels and togas.”
W.CSteven Pinker, The Language Instinct 374 (1994).*

“Teachers of composition are concerned not alone with the mechanics and craftsmanship of expression but with the mechanics and craftsmanship of winning full possession of subject matter for composition purposes. They are concerned with all the mental processes which come before expression. Failure to call attention to these processes and to provide exercise in this pre-expression field is to overlook what may be the teacher’s greatest opportunity for service.”
—Alfred M. Hitchcock, Bread Loaf Talks on Teaching Composition 5 (1927).*

“What matters at school, at the University, and in after-life is not new interpretations of Shakespeare—they are usually false; not new theories of criticism—they are usually futile; but a knowledge of the best that has been said or written, and the power—I admit the limited extent to which this can be taught—to speak and write.”
—F.L. Lucas, Style 27 (1955; repr. 1962).*

*Source: Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day

Last modified: December 9, 2015

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