Like some failed but persistent thief, I’ve lived my life in sentences; some of them are my own, but most of them belong to other people.
What you have here is just about everything I haven’t forgotten from having lived my life that way—listening, reading, writing and teaching. If you get to spend your life that way, you are lucky, and you will have many people to thank for letting you do it, when there may have been, just now and then, other things to be getting on with. I’m standing here with this book in my hand tonight because of all those people; and I’m here to thank them; and I’m here to celebrate with some of them and all of you this book’s arrival in the world.
I wrote this book out of love and impatience.
The love I wrote from is my love for the act of writing itself, which is my life now—for the labour of building one good and shapely sentence after another and trusting it to hold you up even as you walk across it. There are some things I’ve learned from sticking at that task; and I’ve discovered in my teaching, just doing what came naturally to me, that not many people know as much as they’d like about the craft of composition. So I thought I’d write about what I have talked about so long—the part of writing you can teach.
Most of the work of writing is the making of sentences, and the purpose of the sentences is the making of beautiful sense. So that’s what the book’s about. But since I’ve written mostly out of what I know, this is a personal book; it has a voice (mine); and it has an attitude (more of that soon). So this is a kind of ars poetica or ars prosaica, one writer’s reflections on the craft he loves and practises and teaches.
I wrote this book out of impatience with what passes for prose these days just about everywhere you turn (in commerce, government, journalism, scholarship, and even, here and there, in Australian literature). We write clumsy, lifeless, sometimes even meaningless prose because our courage or our technique fails us—or both. The Little Red Writing Book covers both heart and craft.
This little book of sentences; this little book of manners, mysteries and mechanics for the writer in everyone is also a quiet manifesto. The colour and the title hint at this. This is not just a primer in style; it is a cry for grace. For beauty, even. I hope it helps us make literature that’s leaner, wiser and more beautiful than we have often made; and I hope it helps us as a society rediscover the syntax of civility and the diction of democracy.
I wrote the book to do something about bad language and its consequences.
But, I tell you, I’d settle for a good run on the bestseller lists. If the book is what Patrice says it is, that might come to the same thing in the end.
My little book has two big ideas in it—at least two. One is musical (aesthetic); the other’s political (ethical); and I think each may be the other inside out, for they’re both about integrity and voice and care. Writing, no matter how tough or sad or unsettling, (I’m thinking of Cormac McCarthy) should be good and beautiful and true.
1. Music. Writing is semantic music; it’s music that makes sense. But it’s music, and when we forget that, we lose our way—not to mention our readers. Writing patterns sound into shapely and meaningful ebbs and flows, which we call phrases and clauses, sentences and paragraphs; it is noise organised by wisdom and rhythm. Specifically, it’s the noise of human speech. Writing is a spoken thing. And good writing is like great speech, only better—the best conversation you never heard. When you write, you talk on paper, I say in the book; and when it’s good, you sing.
So the secret to good writing is that there is no secret to it at all. At least, there’s no secret language. It goes like speech, and most of us know how to do that. The trick is the care it takes, and the craft, to make one’s writing more than merely vernacular—to heighten it with an art that’s true to one’s own nature; that makes your writing sound like itself, like someone speaking. And to get the knack of that, most of us need some help; that’s the kind of help this book offers.
In an essay I read recently in Spectrum, David Malouf reflected on the intimacy that grows in good books between a writer and a reader. He said something that a writer like me takes great comfort from; for I am a writer who gets bored fast with narrative—especially my own. There are readers like me, I’ve come to realise; David Malouf thinks they are the truest readers. What a reader really means, if I may paraphrase Malouf, when she says she couldn’t put the book down, is not, or not just, that she couldn’t wait to find out what happens next; what she means is that she couldn’t bear to break the spell of the writer’s telling—of the book’s voice. Great writing, even good functional writing, compels us more by how it speaks than by what it says. The real narrative of the best books may be how the reader is changed and moved by the music, by the enchantment of the voice of the work.
2. Politics. I’m not the first person to say it—neither in these days, nor in others; George Orwell said it in 1946—but we have entered into an era of bad language. Again. We live in an age of cant and spin and verbiage. Language—that meaningful vernacular music we are meant to use to make sense of the world and our places in it, to buy groceries, to get our work done, to wonder and chant and play and pray and grieve and plan and remember and report and confess and love—language is too often, these days, subterfuge. At least as often as it’s used to explain something, language is strained, in the workplace and the marketplace, in the parliament and the media, in the classroom and the courtroom to bully and dissemble; to pose and mislead; to buy time and fill space; to say as little as one can, over and again; to cover one’s back; to conform and to baffle.
What is said is hardly ever meant; or if it was meant, you just deny it later (think AWB). And what is meant is hardly ever said—for want of skill and, just as often, courage. Being clear scares the hell out of most people who have to write; or else they’d rather advertise their expertise or save themselves the trouble of thinking straight by discoursing in desiccated polysyllables. (Such as those last ones.) Again, it was always thus. Walter Murdoch, way back in the 1930s wrote, “beware the man who approaches you with words of many syllables—either he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or he doesn’t want you to know.”
“Be generous with the truth,” I found myself saying in this book, “and economical with how you tell it. Most of us do it the other way round; that is the art of politics. Mean as much as you can in the fewest syllables; that is the art of writing.”
And more neatly, Anna Funder writes on the back of the book: “Good writing says something very honest, very clearly,”
You’d want to write, you see, the way you’d like a real democracy to run. A country’s politics and culture—its national conversation—are about as healthy and rich as its prose; and from what I read in the public domain, I think we’re in a bit of trouble. But all we need is the courage and technique to make sentences that are worthy of us, that add to the stock of wisdom, if not joy. And so the struggle to improve our sentences is also the struggle to improve ourselves.
So, this is a book about style in a time of fashion, a book about integrity in a time of sham, a book about discipline in a time of haste, a book about originality in a time of cliché. It is a book of truth telling. But there is one kind of lie we need. I mean the opacity and indirection, the subterfuge, of the poem and the novel, of all literary art—we need desperately to have works of words that do not say merely what they mean. For literature is the art of saying it in other words; it’s the art of telling by not telling. Literature sings, it doesn’t merely tell, the world; it is revelation by vernacular music.
Fiction—all literature really—is the lie you tell to tell the truth. Just make sure it’s a truthful kind of lie, and let it make, like all writing, a memorable kind of music. For the creative writers among you, there’s a special sealed section in here called “Poetics.” It goes into all this; just don’t open it at work, those of you who have paying work to open it at.