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How to Write English Prose

On writing well.

About the author

David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart’s most recent books are Roland in Moonlight, Kenogaia: A Gnostic Tale (both from Angelico Press), and Tradition and Apocalypse (Baker Academic). This essay originally appeared in the Trinity 2022 issue of The Lamp magazine.

The Ideals

There are few if any passages in the works of Sir Thomas Browne that I do not find thoroughly delightful; but two afford me particularly intense pleasure. One is the opening paragraph from his essay “On Dreams”:

Half our dayes wee passe in the shadowe of the earth, and the brother of death exacteth a third part of our lives. A good part of our sleepes is peeced out with visions, and phantasticall objects wherin wee are confessedly deceaved. The day supplyeth us with truths, the night with fictions and falsehoods, which uncomfortably divide the natural account of our beings. And therefore having passed the day in sober labours and rationall enquiries of truth, wee are fayne to betake ourselves unto such a state of being, wherin the soberest heads have acted all the monstrosities of melancholy, and which unto open eyes are no better then folly and madnesse.

And the other is the final paragraph from the second chapter of the fifth book of the immense, glorious, and shamefully neglected miscellany Pseudodoxia Epidemica, entitled “Of the Picture of Dolphins”:

And thus also must that picture be taken of a Dolphin clasping an Anchor: that is, not really, as is by most conceived out of affection unto man, conveighing the Anchor unto the ground: but emblematically, according as Pierius hath expressed it, The swiftest animal conjoyned with that heavy body, implying that common moral, Festina lentè: and that celerity should always be contempered with cunctation.

To my mind, each is in its own way a perfect, exquisitely faceted gem of English prose from an especially glorious literary epoch. The music of the one has haunted me for most of my life; the gleeful perversity of the other has lost none of its power to make me laugh in nearly four decades. And, however great the joy I take in either of these passages in isolation, it is as nothing compared to the idiot bliss I derive from their juxtaposition. Taken together, they ideally illustrate the two extremes of the great man’s voice: on the one hand, its glowing beauty and spacious sonority; on the other, its anfractuous density and heedless flamboyance.

One really would have to have a miserly spirit not to love both. Browne’s prose is a magnificent Baroque palace, by dizzying turns grandiose or lyrical, opulent or elegant, monstrous or precious, inordinate or harmonious, carelessly vast or pedantically exact—and always magnificent. All its outlandish and scintillating mannerisms are just so many volutes and modillions, Solomonic columns and gilded cornices, quadrature and mirrored halls. And all of it is a monument to a brief enchanted period in the seventeenth century when English had achieved the whole range of its expressive powers, and when its greatest writers were not yet burdened by any bad conscience about employing those powers to their fullest. Never again would English letters enjoy such a state of innocent sophistication (or sophisticated innocence).

And yet, of course, it was also the age of the King James Bible, which is so often praised for exhibiting precisely the opposite virtues: simplicity, clarity, plain diction. All of which is true enough, admittedly: the King James is perhaps the greatest feat of pellucid phrasing in the history of English letters. But is that the whole story?

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them; While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain: In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened, And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low; Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets: Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.

This, from Ecclesiastes, is definitely a grand and gradual music, luminously clear in many respects; but it is not exactly austere; it is also quite complex in its cadences and syntax. True, its gleaming paratactic flow contrasts strikingly with Browne’s massy hypotactic architectonics. And yet the difference is nowhere near so absolute as one might initially be tempted to think. Read once again the first few sentences of the passage from “On Dreams” above. When one places the King James alongside the prose not only of Browne but of all the great English writers of the period, over a period of a few generations—John Florio (1552–1625), Lancelot Andrewes (1555–1626), John Donne (1572–1631), Robert Burton (1577–1640), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), Izaak Walton (1593–1683), John Dryden (1631–1700), Thomas Traherne (c. 1636–1674), Joseph Addison (1672–1719), and so on—one cannot help but feel that one is moving back and forth along a single continuum: running not, as we tend to think of it today, from the gaudily ostentatious to the unpretentiously plain, but rather from the beautiful to the sublime, in the classical, pre-Kantian sense of those terms. Taken in that way, the “beautiful” is a style that abounds in sparkling ornamentation while the “sublime” is a style of majestic restraint, pitched “below the threshold” (sub limine) of the temple, a plangent bareness whose rhetorical power somehow exceeds that of the most spectacular oratorical adornments.

Every great national prose, in just about any tongue, reaches its high meridian only by way of a prolonged and constant negotiation of just this tension between beauty and sublimity—between the decorative and the august, or between the splendid and the lucid. And this comes only at the end of long epochs of development. To be able to balance expressiveness and reticence, or to know when to cast that balance away, requires tact and ingenuity and taste on the part of writers; but it also requires a language of sufficient maturity. This is why prose of any consequence invariably arrives far later in a culture’s history than does great poetry. Poetry entered the world almost as early as words did; it is the first flowering of language’s intrinsic magic—its powers of invocation and apostrophe, of making the absent present and the present mysterious, of opening one mind to another. It comes most naturally to languages in their first dawn, when something elemental—something somehow pre-linguistic and not quite conscious—is still audible in them. Prose, however, evolves only when that force has been subdued by centuries upon centuries of refinement, after unconscious enchantment has been largely mastered by conscious artistry, and when the language has acquired a vocabulary of sufficient richness and a syntax of sufficient subtlety, and has fully discovered its native cadences. In English, as in French, this happened in the early modern period, beginning in the late fifteenth century and reaching an unsurpassable zenith in the seventeenth.

By then, moreover, English had amassed the most varied, magnificently farraginous hoard of words in any European tongue, full of Teutonic thunder and purling Latinity, but also enriched with every other verbal plunder it could seize from abroad. No other language could achieve so deep a range of organ-tones, or boast so enormous a collection of pipes and stops, or command so huge an acoustic space. Certainly no other could have produced the sort of wild polyphony and gorgeously wanton dissonances one hears in Macbeth’s

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

Making the green one red.

This is the peculiar genius of the English language: this clash and chaos of radically different tones and textures, and this inexhaustible store of ever more exotic words, with all their ever finer distinctions of association and connotation.

All the great prose stylists of the next couple centuries of English letters would avail themselves freely of this extraordinary instrument’s capacities. Fashions would shift over time. The sensibility of the eighteenth century for a time moved more toward the Latinical registers, that of the nineteenth for a time more toward the Anglo-Saxon; but in every generation writers of any significance understood the magnitude of the musical forces at their disposal. And—well, here, take a typical passage from Thomas De Quincey in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater:

The ocean, in everlasting but gentle agitation, and brooded over by a dove-like calm, might not unfitly typify the mind and the mood which then swayed it. For it seemed to me as if then first I stood at a distance, and aloof from the uproar of life; as if the tumult, the fever, and the strife, were suspended; a respite granted from the secret burthens of the heart; a sabbath of repose; a resting from human labours. Here were the hopes which blossom in the paths of life, reconciled with the peace which is in the grave; motions of the intellect as unwearied as the heavens, yet for all anxieties a halcyon calm: a tranquillity that seemed no product of inertia, but as if resulting from mighty and equal antagonisms; infinite activities, infinite repose.

I do not know exactly why, in the twentieth century, the dominant fashions in English prose moved relentlessly in the direction of ever greater simplification and aesthetic minimalism. I do not even entirely regret it. Tastes change, and some of the change has been a corrective of certain excesses of the past. But, on the whole, the result has been a kind of official dogma in favor of a prose so denuded of nuance, elegance, intricacy, and originality as to be often little better than infantile, not only in vocabulary but also in artistry and expressive power—a formula, that is, for producing writers whose voices are utterly anonymous in their monotonous ordinariness. Most of the fiction one reads today in literary journals is atrociously written, as are most of the essays, principally because writers have been indoctrinated in a style so rigid, barren, brutal, dry, and idiotically naïve that the best it can elicit from them is competent dullness. And who can tell one author from another?

Simplicity is difficult, after all, no less than complexity. Both require taste and skill. Neither is less artificial or more natural than the other. Both are necessary for good writing. And when either becomes a forced regimen, exclusive of the other, the results can be only hideous. Good writing is produced not by forsaking the beautiful for the sublime or the exorbitant for the restrained, but by finding new ways of orchestrating the interplay between them. Now, all the authorities of the age seem to concur, the literary performer should treat the organ’s console as a collection of decadent temptations to be resisted; he or she should confine the performance to a single manual, played with two fingers, with no stops pulled and the pedals never so much as brushed by an errant shoe-tip.

The Exemplars

I could, had I but world enough and time, fill volumes with passages from hundreds of masters of English prose to illustrate my notion of what the best writing looks and sounds like. Here, though, I have chosen five authors whose writing I especially love. To keep myself from expressing too much of my own idiosyncratic tastes, however, I have in each case reproduced a passage that I know others have also praised and excerpted in the past. I will add only that, if you wish for an accelerated tutelage in good writing, you could do far worse than to take these five for your teachers.

Robert Louis Stevenson:

It was by this time about nine in the morning, and the first fog of the season. A great chocolate-colored pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapors; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr. Utterson beheld a marvelous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the black end of evening; and there would be a glow of a rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths. The dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful reinvasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare. (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde)

Sylvia Townsend Warner:

It was not beauty at all that she wanted, or depressed though she was, she would have bought a ticket to somewhere or other upon the Metropolitan railway and gone out to see the recumbent autumnal graces of the country-side. Her mind was groping after something that eluded her experience, a something that was shadowy and menacing, and yet in some way congenial; a something that lurked in waste places, that was hinted at by the sound of water gurgling through deep channels and by the voices of birds of ill-omen. Loneliness, dreariness, aptness for arousing a sense of fear, a kind of ungodly hallowedness—these were the things that called her thoughts away from the comfortable fireside. (Lolly Willowes)

J.A. Baker:

The valley sinks into mist, and the yellow orbital ring of the horizon closes over the glaring cornea of the sun. The eastern ridge blooms purple, then fades to inimical black. The earth exhales into the cold dusk. Frost forms in hollows shaded from the afterglow. Owls wake and call. The first stars hover and drift down. Like a roosting hawk, I listen to the silence and gaze into the dark. (The Peregrine)

Patrick Leigh Fermor:

Scattered with poppies, the golden-green waves of the cornfields faded. The red sun seemed to tip one end of a pair of scales below the horizon, and simultaneously to lift an orange moon at the other. Only two days off the full, it rose behind a wood, swiftly losing its flush as it floated up, until the wheat loomed out of the twilight like a metallic and prickly sea. (Between the Wood and Water)

Vladimir Nabokov:

I recall one particular sunset. It lent an ember to my bicycle bell. Overhead, above the black music of telegraph wires, a number of long, dark-violet clouds lined with flamingo pink hung motionless in a fan-shaped arrangement; the whole thing was like some prodigious ovation in terms of color and form! It was dying, however, and everything else was darkening, too; but just above the horizon, in a lucid, turquoise space, beneath a black stratus, the eye found a vista that only a fool could mistake for the square parts of this or any other sunset. It occupied a very small sector of the enormous sky and had the peculiar neatness of something seen through the wrong end of a telescope. There it lay in wait, a family of serene clouds in miniature, an accumulation of brilliant convolutions, anachronistic in their creaminess and extremely remote; remote but perfect in every detail; fantastically reduced but faultlessly shaped; my marvelous tomorrow ready to be delivered to me. (Speak, Memory)

The Rules

To propose a list of rules for writers is probably a very presumptuous thing to do. The only authority it can possibly have is one’s own example, and so offering it to the world is something of a gamble. One has to assume that one’s own writing is impressive enough to most readers to provide one with the necessary credentials for the task. If one is wrong on this score, issuing those rules will invite only ridicule. I mean, for goodness’ sake, Steven Pinker (of all people) published a book on style. How can anyone take that seriously?

Not that being a good writer is a guarantee that one has any great gift for instructing others in the art. E.B. White was an absolutely splendid stylist; he produced a prose so limpid that he was able to fool even himself that it was a triumph of simple diction rather than of (as was actually the case) very subtle intricacy. But he was also the chief perpetrator of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, by far the most influential and most pernicious book of its kind in English: a total congeries of fatuous advice and grammatical ignorance. Similarly, George Orwell was a perfectly competent (if rather boring) stylist; and yet his celebrated essay “Politics and the English Language,” which was intended as a rebuke of obscurantist jargon, endures now mostly as a manifesto of literary provincialism. Had either White or Orwell followed his own turgid counsels with any fidelity, neither would be nearly as fondly remembered as he is.

Anyway, taking all things into account, I offer the following only to those who like my writing, or who at least think it accomplished enough to make me a credible authority on these matters. These are, if nothing else, the rules to which I adhere and that best express my literary tastes. The first three arise, in fact, from my own direct encounters with editors and critics.


1. Always use the word that most exactly means what you wish to say, in utter indifference to how common or familiar that word happens to be. A writer should never fret over what his or her readers may or may not know, and should worry only about underestimating them. As Nabokov said, a good reader always comes prepared with a dictionary and never resents being introduced to a new term. I call this the “ultracrepidarian rule,” simply because an editor once tried unsuccessfully to dissuade me from writing about a certain “polemicist who stumbles across unseen disciplinary boundaries in an ultracrepidarian stupor.” The editor lost that argument because there is absolutely no other word in the English language that so exactly means what I wanted to say.

2. Always use the word you judge most suitable for the effect you want to produce, in terms both of imagery and sound, as well as of the range of connotations and associations you want to evoke. This I call the “hyaline rule” on account of a sentence that appeared in a book of mine entitled The Doors of the Sea: “At the shorelines, the lovely glistening hyaline waters were all at once polluted with the silt and débris and murk of the ocean’s bed, and rose with such terrifying suddenness that very few—even as far away as Sri Lanka—had sufficient time to flee.” An indignant reader complained that I might just as easily have used the word “glassy” instead, as any decent unpretentious soul would have done. But I had chosen “hyaline” for very particular reasons: it is a precise word, meaning “glassy” in the sense principally of crystalline translucency; it had exactly the right sound for the sentence—three syllables, the lovely long-i vowel sounds, the equally lovely liquid “l” and smoothly glistening “n,” all of which gave it a glassy and watery feel on the tongue; and it was the perfect word in the context of that book because it echoes the book of Revelation’s thalassa hyalinē, “the sea of glass like unto crystal” before God’s throne, as well as Milton’s “On the clear hyaline, the glassy sea . . .” Perhaps no reader is likely to be aware of all of that; but I knew what I was doing, and so any other word would have been a craven capitulation to the ordinary.

3. When the occasion presents itself for using an outlandishly obscure but absolutely precise and appropriate word, use it. I call this the “pogonotrophy rule,” because I once wrote a review in the Times Literary Supplement of a book by Rowan Williams, at that time Archbishop of Canterbury, after a dreadfully stupid journalist had suggested that his reputation as an intellectual was a consequence only of his lavish beard. This gave me an opportunity to use that wonderful word, which I had long been holding in reserve for just the proper moment. Such an opportunity would certainly have never come again; if I had let it pass unexploited, I should have carried the grief of it to my grave.

4. Never use a word simply because it is obscure, but never hesitate to use a word on account of its obscurity either. If you show off by being punctiliously precise, as per rule one above, all the grand rococo ornamentation you could ever wish for your prose will spring up all on its own.

5. Do not use a thesaurus. Lists of putative synonyms do not give you a sense of any word’s most proper meaning and use. If you are trying to recall a word you know that inexplicably refuses to surface in your memory, maybe you will find it in such a volume; and perhaps, if you happen to be writing humorous verse and have come up against an intractable problem of scansion, you might find something suitable there. Otherwise, learn the meanings and uses of words by reading widely (with that dictionary that Nabokov recommends within reach).

6. The exotic is usually more delightful than the familiar. Be kind to your readers and give them exotic things when you can. In general, life is rather boring, and a writer should try to mitigate that boredom rather than contribute to it.


7. Sometimes less is more. More often, more is more and less is less. Sometimes more is the very least one can do for one’s readers.

8. If you must choose between elegance and perfect clarity, allow yourself a period of decorously agonized indecision, and then always choose elegance.

9. Never squander an opportunity for verbal cleverness. I once related in print the notorious tale of Schopenhauer throwing an old washerwoman down a flight of stairs, describing him at one point as seizing her by her “wizened weasand.” Self-indulgent, no doubt, but such moments as those make one feel that one has lived to a purpose.

10. In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell proposes six rules, the first of which is a sound admonition against using hackneyed metaphors, but the second of which is “Never use a long word when a short one will do.” This is an idiotic maxim, one that concentrates almost every kind of philistinism in itself. What he should have written was “Never prefer a short word because it is short or a long word because it is long, but always use the word that to your mind best combines sense, felicity, connotation, wit, and sound, without worrying about whether your readers are likely to recognize it.”

11. Orwell also decrees: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” No great writer in the history of any tongue has ever observed this rule, and no aspiring writer should follow it. The correct counsel would be “If a word is so excessive as to mar the effect of a sentence, remove it; but never remove a word simply because it is possible to do so.”

12. Orwell then commands: “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” This is perhaps the worst rule of style ever proposed by anyone. All of literary history proclaims its imbecility. Instead: “Avoid the passive voice when the active works better and vice versa.” After all, in life we sometimes act and sometimes are acted upon. The causal dialectic between agency and patiency, to use the scholastic terms, is intrinsic to finitude.

13. Orwell’s next dictate is “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” All that can be salvaged from this trite and parochial balderdash is “Avoid jargon.” Feel free to use a foreign phrase when it is apt or pleasing to do so, and always do so when it expresses an idea with greater elegance or aphoristic economy than any English equivalent could (for instance, the phrase l’esprit d’escalier). English is a gloriously mongrel tongue, and it has always pillaged other languages for glittering trinkets. Moreover, always—always—employ precise scientific terms in contexts where they are germane.

14. Orwell’s final injunction is “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Since, however, following his rules would produce barbarous prose roughly half the time, he ought instead to have written, “Ignore these rules, except for the one about hackneyed metaphors and the bit about jargon.”

15. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style decrees: “Keep related words together.” This is vacuous. Awkward ruptures of sense are obviously to be avoided. Taken as a principle, however, this little axiom is not only bad advice; it is a renunciation of language as such. As any decent student of linguistics knows, one of the chief differences between actual linguistic meaning (on the one hand) and mere ostensive noises and gestures (on the other) is the former’s reliance upon structural rather than spatial proximities. The capacity to qualify a predicative phrase by the interpolation of a subordinate clause (for example) is one of those precious attainments that distinguish us from baboons.

16. The same book advises: “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.” That is moronic. Better not to write at all than attempt to heed so obscene a piece of puritanical nonsense. Write with every kind of word that serves your ends.

17. In fact, if you own a copy of The Elements of Style, just destroy the damned thing. It is a pestilential presence in your library. Most of the rules of style it contains are vacuous, arbitrary, or impossible to obey, and you are better off without them in your life. And the materials on grammar and usage are frequently something worse. Some of them are simply inherited fake rubrics—“however” must always be a postpositive, “which” must not be used for a restrictive relative clause, and other nonsense of that kind—all of which are belied by the whole canon of English literature. Others, however, are evidence of surprising ignorance. It is bad enough that the manual insists that one must on principle prefer the passive to the active voice; but it is far worse that it then adduces several supposed examples of sentences in the passive voice that are in fact nothing of the sort. One of them—“There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground”—seems to have been chosen simply because “lying” about sounds like a passive sort of thing to do. That neither Strunk nor White knew the difference between a passive construction and an active intransitive verb in the imperfect past tense—or, as the book also demonstrates, the difference between the passive and an active past perfect, or the difference between the passive and an adjectival past participle without an auxiliary verb—is genuinely shocking. It does, however, impart a useful lesson: never mistake a tone of authority for evidence of actual expertise.

18. All these vapidly doctrinaire injunctions—urging you to write only plain declarative sentences stripped of modifiers and composed solely of words familiar to the average ten-year-old and demanding that you always prefer charcoal-gray to sumptuous purple—are expressions of everything spiritually deadening about late modernity and its banausic values. They reflect an epoch in which the mysterious, the evocative, and the beautifully elliptical have been systematically suppressed and nearly extinguished in the name of the efficient, the practical, the mechanical, and the starkly unambiguous—in short, in the name of everything that makes existence uninviting and life boring. They are reflections of an age of bloodless capitalist economism, the reign of brutally common sense, the barbarian triumph of function over form, a spare, Spartan civic architecture of featureless glass and steel and plastic, a consumerist society that lives on the ceaseless production and disposal of intrinsically graceless conveniences. Learn to detest all of these things and you will be a better writer for having done so.

19. Always read what you have written aloud. No matter how elaborate your prose, it must flow; it must feel genuinely continuous. This is not to say one must imitate natural speech; it is only to say that one must try to capture its rhythms. If what you have written is awkward on your tongue, then it is awkward on the page.


20. Bad writing is rarely mistaken for good by the discerning, but it can often be mistaken for great. Keep this in mind when considering the work of authors you are tempted to emulate.

21. Truly great writing is often inimitable, simply because the better a writer is, the more distinctive his or her voice tends to be. Keep this also in mind when considering the work of authors you are tempted to emulate.

22. If you have ever taken a course in “creative writing,” try to remember as vividly as possible the kind of prose you were encouraged by your teacher to write, and then do your very best to avoid writing that way.

23. If you were told in school that Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea is a specimen of good writing, disabuse yourself of this folly. It is in fact an excruciating specimen of bad schoolboy prose, written by a man who by that point had, alas, been too often drunk, too often concussed, and too often praised.

24. For American writers in particular, and especially young American writers, and most especially young male American writers: There is on these shores an indigenous tradition of the “American Sublime”—though in many cases it might better be called “American Fustian.” One encounters it at its worst in William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe when they are at their worst, as well as in a number of other authors whose names I here omit. We as a people like to strive for grand effects, often vastly in excess of any plausible occasion for doing so. Whether this is because of the presence of our magnificent landscape or because of the absence of a long cultural history I cannot guess. I would not say that you must resist the lures of this style altogether. It is there also to be found in the best of our literature—in Melville and Emerson, Muir and Thoreau, and so on—and there it is often glorious. Still, yield to it only to the degree that you can control the forces you set loose. Otherwise, you will lapse into inadvertent parody.


25. A writer who disdains the semicolon is a fool. In fact, hostility to this most delicate and lyrical of punctuation marks is a sure sign of a deformed soul and a savage sensibility. Conscious life is not a brute concatenation of discrete units of experience; it is often fluid, resistant to strict divisions and impermeable partitions, punctuated by moments of transition that are neither exactly terminal nor exactly continuous in character. Meaning, moreover, is often held together by elusive connections, ambiguous shifts of reference, mysterious coherences. And art should use whatever instruments it has at its disposal to express these ambiguous eventualities and perplexing alternations. To master the semicolon is to master prose. To master the semicolon is to master language’s miraculous capacity for capturing the shape of reality.

26. Second only to the semicolon in subtlety, fluent beauty, and whimsy is the dash. Cherish it. Use it with abandon.


27. Those who read only to be informed and never to delight in the words on the page have every right to do so. But do not write for them.

28. The only book reviewers of any significance are themselves distinguished writers. Cultivate critical intelligence in yourself and try to read your own work with impartiality; but studiously ignore criticism from the unaccomplished.

29. Do not write down to what you presume to be the level of your readers (unless you are writing specifically for very small children). To do so is an injustice both to them and to you. Even if your suppositions regarding them are correct, you should do them the honor of assuming they know what you know, or can learn it, or are at least willing to try. True, some readers become indignant at their own inability to follow prose of any complexity or to recognize words any more obscure than those they are accustomed to using when talking to their dogs. Invariably they will blame the author rather than themselves. You owe them absolutely nothing. If you attempt always to descend to the lowest common denominator, you will never hit bottom, but you will certainly end up losing the interest of better readers. Ours is, sadly, an age of declining literacy and attention spans, and the situation grows worse by the year. You simply must not make any concessions to that reality, unless you are prepared in the end to give up on writing altogether.

The Last Things:

30. Memento mori. One day you will die and go to your long home and your voice will fall silent. You have only so much time to make the treasures of your mind and soul manifest. Do not waste the little span allotted to you producing only work intended for the moment rather than for posterity.

31. Know the names of things and the names of places. Both are a kind of poetry and both contain mysteries. It is an ancient intuition that to possess something’s proper name is to possess power over it; it is, if nothing else, to share in that thing’s form—its unique manner, that is, of making being’s inexhaustible richness manifest. This is because language is magic.

32. Language is magic. It is invocation and conjuration. With words, we summon the seas and the forests, the stars and distant galaxies, the past and the future and the fabulous, the real and the unreal, the possible and the impossible. With words, we create worlds—in imagination, in the realm of ideas, in the arena of history. With words, we disclose things otherwise hidden, including even our inward selves. And so on. When you write, attempt to weave a spell. If this is not your intention, do not write.

33. As you near your life’s end, you will be able to look back over your work with some satisfaction if there have been moments in your prose when you have achieved precisely what you hoped to achieve. Keep an inventory of these in your mind, so that you can return to them when you find yourself depressed, uninspired, or suffering self-doubt. I offer two of my own such moments in parting, not because either is in any sense the best thing I have written, but only because each happened (almost miraculously) to have exactly the form and effect that I wanted it to have before I began to write it.

The first is not even a complete sentence, but only a sequence of fragmentary impressions in a story called “A Voice from the Emerald World”:

The light, palely golden in the fluttering leaves, and between the slowly swaying culms . . . and, when I look up, that great eye of soft luminous blue, fringed by the mercurial sparkle of green and silver leaves . . . that blank, quietly menacing, mysterious gaze . . . .

The second is a short passage from near the end of a novel entitled Kenogaia:

He could even see Kenopolis from here, no longer under a pall of storm-clouds, ringed by the mild aqueous shimmer of the moonlit harbor and bay and sea; now, though, it all looked poignantly diminutive, like a chaotically turreted sandcastle among shallow tidal pools, waiting for the rising surf to break it down, or like a frayed cardboard diorama in a neglected corner of the nursery. Why, he mused, had they ever felt it necessary to flee from something so quaint and ephemeral?

Only I can ever really know what it is about each of them that I find so perfectly pleasing; but, believe me, that knowledge makes all the hard work of writing seem more than worthwhile.