One day this week, as I stood in line for my morning coffee, I overheard two gentlemen speaking ahead of me in line. They were older men (fifty to sixties) and one was talking about the difference in eloquence between letters home from Civil War soldiers and soldiers today. He thought it was like no one had a decent vocabulary any more.
Point taken. My immediate thought was of the epistolary form of early English novels (Tristram Shandy, Joseph Andrews, Frankenstein) and how that form wouldn’t really work today. Largely, because the action would be too slow, but more than that, it wouldn’t be believed because people don’t write letters like that anymore. They text. They post to Facebook. They don’t write letters.
I recently read a short article on the web comparing an 1880’s textbook to the classroom work of modern students. The United States is not producing students with the ability to write well, to be able to fully express themselves with nuance and complexity, not like generations past. The article asserted that the reason for this lack is the way students are taught to use the language these days.
They proposed three principles we should use to improve modern students’ writing abilities. I think they merit some discussion. Being neither an educator, nor a parent, I feel particularly underqualified to comment on this subject. However, they seem like valid excercises.
Naturally, being interested in improving writing (all writing in general, my own in particular) I wondered if these principles would also be of value to the adult, already more accomplished writer.
I think they would. You can make your own decision as to their value.
Read good literature.
I write mostly suspense fiction, ranging from horror to mystery and detective. It is the type of novel I enjoy reading the most and am most familiar with. So, it’s what I know and I write what I know. While many (or most even) of these are very well written, the quality is usually emphasized less than the plot, the puzzle, or even the characterization.
Would I benefit from reading more of the classical masters of the language, from Shakespeare to Dickens, Twain, James, Hemingway and Faulkner? Yes, in all probability I would. By studying truly good literature, perhaps I could learn some of the skill those masters demonstrated.
Does that mean I stop reading murder mysteries? No. It just means I read some literary classics in between the latest Lee Childs and the new Stephen King. I just add it to what I’m already reading.
When you do read, don’t skim. Read it slow.
It is one of the problems of the modern age: time. In too many instances, both students and adults alike are encouraged to rush through tasks, gleaning just enough information to pass a test or produce a presentation, before rushing on to the next assignment. We are judged so much now (by ourselves as well as others) by how quickly we can get through something, not how deeply we experienced it.
I am probably as guilty as anyone in this. Because I am able to read very fast (some would say extremely) with comprehension, it is far too easy for me to breeze through a work in a couple of days without letting much of it sink in. It would benefit me greatly to slow down and fully experience the prose.
In the article, they suggested reading aloud as a way to fight this urge. Most of us read much, much faster than we can talk, so reading it aloud forces us to slow down. It also allows us to better appreciate the natural musicality of the language and the prose as a talented writer has constructed it. How many of us were impacted by the music of Dr. Suess primarily because we read it aloud to our children and thus internalized it?
A wonderful goal would be to pick a classic work and read a passage aloud every day.
No one memorizes anymore. Other than the alphabet and multiplication tables of our youth, and a few common formulas in the sciences, we don’t commit much to memory anymore. Why? Personally, I think it has to do with convenience. With the advance of technology, nearly all the information we might need is only a couple of moments away on the internet.
Heck, young people don’t even memorize phone numbers anymore; their phone does it for them.
So why bother to memorize? Isn’t it a waste of valuable time? Time you could be spending reading something new, or even trying to write something new? It depends on what your goals are.
Memorization is like reading aloud from the previous principle, but on steroids. The insights and depths we’ve found by slowing down and reading aloud are only amplified when we memorize the same passage. By memorizing, we force ourselves to learn every nuance, inflection, every minor melody and rhythm of the prose.
Think of it this way. We read because we want to learn how authors put together their stories, how poets construct their poems. When we read the works of authors we admire, we begin to internalize the manners in which they create their works. If you spend a week reading nothing but Hemingway short stories and then sit down to write your own story, odds are good that your prose will bear a strong resemblance to Hemingway’s. Without trying, you have internalized his style.
Now imagine you have memorized an entire Hemingway story. There is no internalization stronger than actually memorizing something. By definition, you carry that passage around within your memory. It has become a part of you.
But memorizing an entire story is a tremendous task. Better to memorize a shorter meaningful passage. Perhaps a soliloquy from Shakespeare. Perhaps a poem by Keats, or Wordsworth. Just make it good and meaningful to you.
I think this is an exciting plan, that promises to improve the quality of our prose. In fact, I like it so much, I’m going to start this very evening, spending a few minutes reading aloud to myself. Tomorrow, perhaps, I will work on memorizing one of my favorite poems.