Writing is hard – for most of us. I remember reading a biography of the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. Whenever he went on holiday he would take a huge pile of books with him to review. Most days he would get through one of these substantial works and dash off an article of two or three thousand words without notes or pause for thought.
At the other end of the scale is Don DeLillo, one of my favourite novelists. He is so meticulous in the process of writing that he gives every paragraph its own sheet of paper, as if to say: You are important; I’m going to take you seriously; I’m going to give you space to breathe. I’ve always wanted to try it…
I mention all this because I’ve just come across Hugh Trevor-Roper’s ‘Ten Commandments of Good Writing’, a summary of some of the advice the renowned historian would give to his young students to foster their clarity of expression. I’m not sure if it is in copyright or not – the printed copy I have says that it had formerly been circulated only in samizdat. You can see the whole version online here. Here are the first four commandments – and the ones I need to remember most often:
(1) Thou shalt know thine own argument and cleave fast to it, and shalt not digress nor deviate from it without the knowledge and consent of the reader, whom at all times thou shalt lead at a pace which he can follow and by a route which is made clear to him as he goeth.
(2) Thou shalt respect the autonomy of the paragraph, as commanded by the authority and example of the prophet Edward Gibbon, for it is the essential unit in the chain of argument. Therefore thou shalt keep it pure and self-contained, each paragraph having within it a single central point to which all other observations in it shall be exactly subordinated by the proper use of the particles and inflections given to us for this purpose.
(3) Thou shalt aim always at clarity of exposition, to which all other literary aims shall be subordinated, remembering the words of the prophet commandant Black, “clarté prime, longueur secondaire.” To this end thou shalt strive that no sentence be syntactically capable of any unintended meaning, and that no reader be obliged to read any sentence twice to be sure of its true meaning. To this end also thou shalt not fear to repeat thyself, if clarity require it, nor to state facts which thou thinkest as well known to others as to thyself, for it is better to remind the learned than to leave the unlearned in perplexity.
(4) Thou shalt keep the structure of thy sentences clear, preferring short sentences to long and simple structures to complex, lest the reader lose his way in a labyrinth of subordinate clauses; and, in particular, thou shalt not enclose one relative clause in another, for this both betrays crudity of expression and is a fertile source of ambiguity.
And the last one can’t be left out:
(10) Thou shalt carefully expunge from thy writing all consciously written purple passages, lest they rise up to shame thee in thine old age.