Right Words

Shakespeare’s First Folio displayed at Christie’s Auction House in London, January 13, 2020 (Henry Nicholls / Reuters)
On how to write, and what to read

Not long ago, I was talking to some aspiring writers about writing. Some thoughts emerged, and I’d like to share some.

What makes a writer? Well, probably some combination of talent and learning — with the former counting for more, I’m afraid. But learning is not to be discounted. Also, learning can awaken talent you may not have known you had.

There is a good deal of craft in writing — though often this craft is intuited, rather than consciously thought of.

I think a writer should know the rules. He should learn grammar backward and forward. He should be an expert on the language. Then he can depart from the rules and play around. He has the grounding to do so.

Picasso could draw or paint as realistically as you wanted. He could be well-nigh photographic. But, as his life progressed, he chose to play around (for better or worse) (and a lot of people think worse).

A lot of editors, and others, would not like those two parenthetical phrases in a row. They would want you to write, “(for better or worse — and a lot of people think worse).” To heck with them.

“Favor short words over long words!” people say. Okay. Maybe as a rule. But rather than a short word or a long word, we should favor the right word — whatever it is. Often it’s short, but often it’s not.

Someone once said to Bill Buckley, frustratedly, “Why did you use the word ‘irenic’ when it just means ‘peaceful’?” “Hmmm,” said Bill, “let me see that.” He checked over what he had written. And then he said, “I must have desired the third syllable.”

To make the sentence musical, you see. To have the rhythm right. To keep the sentence in balance. Now, good writers are seldom conscious of such things. They are not self-analytical. The words just come out.

There is an expression in golf: “paralysis by analysis.” Avoid it.

I think of another expression in golf — or at least one I heard in golf: “Let it happen, cap’n.”

Mark Helprin reads things aloud — reads his writing aloud. This can confirm the musicality, or rightness, of the writing.

The concept of balance puts me in mind of Stravinsky. Once, a performer asked him to make a change in a new piece, for ease of playing. (This was a piece of Stravinsky’s, of course.) It was just a small change. And Stravinsky went ahead and made it. But he found that the one change necessitated a host of other changes — in order to keep the piece in balance.

So it is in writing, I know from long experience.

Should a writer be fancy or plain? Plain, right? Well, it all depends. What are you trying to convey? What is the best means of communication?

Macbeth says, “the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.” Why those fancy, multisyllabic words? Well, can’t you hear the waves?! And see them, turning red?!

The guy could be pretty simple, too (Shakespeare): “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Downright stark, right?

Above, I used a couple of exclamation points, and, worse — “worse” — I used them after question marks. You can’t do that, right? Well, maybe you can’t . . .

“Use exclamation points sparingly,” people say. In fact, it may be better to avoid them altogether! (Ha.) My question: When should you use exclamation points? Answer: When it’s appropriate to do so — same as with almost everything.

The Bible (King James) is replete with exclamation points. I would not remove a single one of them.

“Woe to thee, Moab!”

“How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!”

“If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!”

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!”


You may have heard that you should not use the word “very.” I’m with Helprin: You know when you should use the word “very”? When you mean “very.” There’s a difference between “sad” and “very sad.”

Bill Buckley once said “very indigent.” He then said to me, “Can you be very indigent?” I said I didn’t think so. Indigence is indigence. (He agreed.)

Back to fanciness and plainness. WFB (William F. Buckley Jr.) was famous, or infamous, for fancy words, long words. But he should be famous for the right word. (That is the title of his book on language, a collection: The Right Word.) He could use “stochastic” and “Wow!” in the same column. A conventional columnist would never use either, holding that “stochastic” is too obscure and “Wow!” too common.

I believe Sam Vaughan made this point, a long time ago. He was frequently Bill’s editor. It was he who put together that language collection.

As a rule, I think, writing should reflect speech. You should write like you talk. Bill did (honestly). So does Norman Podhoretz, pretty much. (I’ve picked another of my favorite writers, and models.)

Way back, I found that I could not write without contractions without sounding stiff. I could have changed “can’t” to “cannot,” “aren’t” to “are not,” etc. — but that spoiled the rhythm of my speech.

But Norman P.? He virtually never used a contraction, and he never sounded stiff. His writing simply flowed. I brought this up with him once. He said, in essence, “Yep.”

But that was him. Is him. You may be different, so just go with it. If you try to sound like someone else, you’ll be a poorer version of him, when your best self is better.

I don’t care what words you use, but use them precisely, please! Know their meanings and deploy them accurately. Don’t scattershot them.

Last night, I wanted to tweet a description of WFB by Jeffrey Hart. Jeff said that Bill was a “gorgeous, Wildean” figure. I quoted “Wildean” but omitted “gorgeous” — because no one knows what it means. And I did not want people to mock.

Was I right to withhold the word? (“Gorgeous” means “splendidly or showily brilliant or magnificent.”) Probably not. But people can be such jerks, you know, and you sometimes have to guard against them — not always, but sometimes.

When I was starting out, I said to an editor, melodramatically, “The problem is, I strive to make every sentence golden.” “Nonsense,” he said, “you should strive to make every sentence clear.”

He also said, “You are incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence.” I later found out that he said that same thing to a colleague of mine — but I didn’t mind at all, because it was 100 percent true of the colleague.

Sometimes it helps to write as though communicating to one person — one person, a real person, you have in mind. What do you want to tell him, or her? How should you — how would you — speak to this person?

What if you were writing a letter home? How would you put things? That’s not a bad way to go, when you’re a writer.

And get real clear on what you want to say. Figure out what you think, before you write (or as you write, but at least at some point). Usually, if you’re unclear on what to write, it’s because you’re unclear on what to think.

For my money, H. L. Mencken was a colossal jackass, and I have next to no use for him. But he was clever, and he did have a high IQ. You probably know this famous statement from him: “The cause of bad writing is, as often said, bad thinking. But what isn’t said enough is that the cause of bad thinking is stupidity.”

I wish to mention something else: speed. I want my readers to be able to read me fast. I want them to whoosh down the page. I don’t want them to have to stop or stumble. To puzzle over or re-read.

Other writers don’t mind, however — they don’t mind if you have to work a bit, even to re-read. There are good writers in both camps.

You can tell when a writer is trying to be writerly — when he is being “writey-writey,” as I say. Such efforts are painful to read, I find. Never aim to be stylish. If you have style, you will be stylish. The aiming is disastrous.

“Write short sentences,” says Paul Johnson, “and occasionally mix in a long one, for variety.” If we’re doing rules, I’ll take that as a rule. But I guarantee you that Paul is not conscious of it, when he himself writes. (He probably noticed this business about sentences when he worked as an editor. I, too, noticed many things when I was an editor.)

Paul Johnson is utterly devoted to music. (He is a biographer of Mozart.) Bill Buckley was utterly devoted to music. Norman Podhoretz, same. Vikram Seth, that great writer, says, “Music is dearer to me than speech.”

The musicality in all such writers is obvious. They inhabit a sound-world, same as composers do (I mean, composers of music, rather than of prose or poetry).

Back to the rules. “What’s our policy?” an assistant editor once asked, with some annoyance, and even some accusation. Well, sometimes there is a policy — e.g., “We don’t capitalize the ‘f’ in ‘federal.’” “We spell out numbers through twelve.” But sometimes the “policy” is taste, discretion, experience, judgment — talent.

You can’t really say that, it’s too insulting. (People hate the kind of piece I am writing now, and I don’t blame them.)

Follow the rules, yes, or “rules.” For example, it’s unwise to begin consecutive paragraphs with the same word — except when it isn’t. If a rule conflicts with a writer’s ear, the rule has to go — provided the writer has a good ear.

But who’s to say what’s a good ear? This is where it gets very painful, very awkward. The world of arts and letters is not a democracy, unfortunately.

Twice, WFB wrote a book about a single week in his life. His detractors were aghast. “The audacity!” they said. “Imagine being so arrogant, you think people want to read about a typical week in your life.”

Bill pleaded that he was a “performing writer” — and that if you could write a book, at his level, about a week in your life, he’d read it, eagerly. I’m not sure this mollified anyone.

We can all sing. If you can talk, you can sing, more or less. But few of us would dare sing an aria in public, or even a folk song. If you can make out a grocery list, you can write. But . . .

Sometimes writing’s easy, sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it comes like a summer breeze, sometimes it’s a death march. Want to hear Paul Johnson? “After a hard day’s writing, you should be grinning with relish.” No doubt he is. Others will be more like grimacing.

I can tell you this: My own pieces come out basically the same, whether they have tripped off my fingers or been struggled over. Isn’t that strange? The difficulty of the struggled-over ones is disguised (I think).

I once knew a lady of advanced years, and a beauty she was. She said, “I look the same as I always did. It just takes longer.”

Let me switch gears, to talk about independence, courage — being true to oneself. Several months ago, I wrote about the perils of “reading the room.” A journalist had begun a piece, “Could someone please, for the love of God, teach J.K. Rowling how to read the room?”

I commented,

There are writers who read the room. They are practically human thermometers. And they give the room what it wants. But if you write for the room — with the room in mind; with audience reaction in mind — you can hardly be a real writer.

There is no pleasing everyone. There never will be. Someone will always object, someone will always hate what you write, no matter what it is: “Pass the salt.” “Puppies are frisky.” “Today is Tuesday.” It doesn’t matter.

You will have your appreciators, as well as your damners. Those appreciators are a balm. Write for them — if for no one else — and let the damners bark, to whoever’s listening.

Always, there will be snowflakes, triggered, who scream for a safe place, and for your cancelation.

Forge on.

George Rochberg, the late composer, once told a young colleague, “It takes an iron stomach to be a composer.” You have to brave the wrath and scorn of the world. It takes an iron stomach to be a writer, too — a real writer, with meaningful things to say. Anyone can be a crowd-pleaser, a punch-puller, a herd animal.

There is safety in the herd, for sure. And sometimes the herd is the place to be! But great satisfaction can be found outside it, if not in the near term, then in the long.

Okay, I’ve gone on long enough, and, if I’m reading the room correctly (!), I’m starting to bore. Just a couple of more things.

“A couple more things” (with no “of”)? Ee-ther, eye-ther. “Fielder’s choice,” as John Derbyshire says. There are many, many choices in writing — good choices — and they face you every day, in a writing life.

As I see it, it’s hard to teach someone how to write. I think I can be helpful to someone, if he gives me some samples. In any event, I’m big on absorption: the absorption, the soaking in, of good writing (or music or what have you). This is a very good way to learn — even, or especially, when you don’t know you are learning.

An old professor of mine, David Herbert Donald, the historian, had a piece of advice for writing: Watch Fred Astaire. Look at him dance. Note his lines — their fluidity, their angularity, their grace, their humor.

Fred and other dancers aside, should you read a particular kind of writing? I would say not. The only kind of writing I’m talking about is good writing. The economical and the Baroque, the Hemingwayesque and the Faulknerian.

“If it sounds good, it is good,” Duke Ellington said about music.

Someone asked me to draw up a list of books that might be useful to a young writer — or any, frankly — and to a conservative-minded person in particular. As asked, I drew up a list. There are a couple of essays in there. My list is heavy on collections, or anthologies, because the main idea is to give tastes.

Most of the books are on the list for their thought — for what they have to say, rather than how they say it. But sometimes the “how” is equal to the “what,” or even greater than.

A lot of people won’t like my list, of course — I can hear them now. Verbatim. But that’s all right, because they can draw up their own lists, if they want, according to their own lights. Vive la différence, and Vive la liberté.

First will be a list of non-fiction works. And then some fiction suggestions, for the soaking in. Thanks a lot, and catch you soon.

Brookhiser, Richard, Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln
Buckley, William F., Jr., The Right Word
Buckley, William F., Jr., Let Us Talk of Many Things
Buckley, William F., Overdrive
Chambers, Whittaker, Witness
Conquest, Robert, Reflections on a Ravaged Century
Hayek, Friedrich A., The Constitution of Liberty
Hayek, Friedrich A., The Fatal Conceit
Johnson, Paul, Modern Times
Johnson, Paul, The Quotable Paul Johnson
Kristol, Irving, The Neoconservative Persuasion
Levin, Bernard, Enthusiasms
Lincoln, Abraham, The Speeches & Writings of Abraham Lincoln (from the Library of America)
Link, Perry, “The Anaconda in the Chandelier”
Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”
Podhoretz, Norman, The Norman Podhoretz Reader
Pryce-Jones, David, Fault Lines
Sharansky, Natan, Fear No Evil
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr, The Oak and the Calf
Sowell, Thomas, Black Rednecks and White Liberals
Sowell, Thomas, The Quest for Cosmic Justice
Valladares, Armando, Against All Hope
Will, George F., The Conservative Sensibility

Helprin, Mark — perhaps The Pacific
Ishiguro, Kazuo, The Remains of the Day
Kipling, Rudyard, Kim
Naipaul, V.S. — perhaps A Bend in the River
Seth, Vikram — perhaps An Equal Music
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Waugh, Evelyn, Brideshead Revisited and Scoop


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