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the substantial character of your writing; but you may much improve the form of it by the observance of two or three general rules.
In the first place, be sure you have something to say. This may appear to you a very unnecessary precaution, for who, you will ask, having nothing to say, desires to write or to speak ? I do not doubt that you have often felt as if your brain was teeming with thoughts too big for words ; but when you came to seize them, for the purpose of putting them into words, you have found them evading your grasp and melting into the air. They were not thoughts at all, but fancies—shadows which you had mistaken for substances, and whose vagueness you would never have detected, had you not sought to embody them in language. Hence it is that you will need to be assured that you have thoughts to express, before you try to express
them. And how to do this? By asking yourself, before you take the pen, what it is you intend to say, and answering yourself as you best can, without caring for the form of expression. If it is only a vague and mystical idea, conceived in cloudland, you will try in vain to put it into any form of words, however rude. If, however, it is a definite thought, proceed at once to set it down in words and fix it upon paper.
The expression of a precise and definite thought is not difficult. Words will follow the thought ; indeed, they will usually accompany it, because it is almost impossible to think unless the thought is clothed in words. So closely are ideas and language linked by habit, that very few minds are capable of contemplating them apart, insomuch that it may be safely asserted of all intellects, save the highest, that if they are unable to express their
ideas, it is because the ideas are incapable of expression –because they are vague and hazy. For the present purpose it will suffice that you put upon paper the substance of what you desire say, in terms as rude as you please, the object being simply to measure your thoughts. If you cannot express them, do not attribute your failure to the weakness of language, but to the dreaminess of your ideas, and therefore banish them without mercy and direct your mind to some more definite object for its contemplations. If you succeed in putting your ideas into words, be they ever so rude, you will have learned the first, the most difficult, and the most important, lesson in the art of writing. The second is far easier. Having thoughts, and having embodied those thoughts in unpolished phrase, your next task will be to present them in the most attractive form. To secure the attention of those to whom you desire to communicate your thoughts, it is not enough that you utter them in any words that come uppermost; you must express them in the best words and in the most graceful sentences, so that they may be read with pleasure, or at least without offending the taste.
Your first care in the choice of words will be that they shall express precisely your meaning.
Words are used so loosely in society that the same word will often be found to convey half-a-dozen different ideas to as many auditors. Even where there is not a conflict of meanings in the same word, there is usually a choice of words having meanings sufficiently alike to be used indiscriminately, without subjecting the user to a charge of positive error. But the cultivated taste is shown in the selection of such as express the most delicate shades of difference. Therefore, it is not enough to have
abundance of words—you must learn the precise meaning of each word, and in what it differs from other words supposed to be synonymous; and then you must select that which most exactly conveys the thought you are seeking to embody. I will not pretend to give you rules for this purpose—I am acquainted with none that are of much practical value. Some of the books profess to teach the pupil how to choose his words; but for my own part, having tried these teachings, I found them worthless and others who have done the like have experienced the same unsatisfactory result. There is but one way to fill your mind with words and that is, to read the best authors and to acquire an accurate knowledge of the precise meaning of their words—by parsing as you read.
By the practice of parsing, I intend very nearly the process so called at schools, only limiting the exercise to the definitions of the principal words. As thus :—take, for instance, the sentence that immediately precedes this —ask yourself what is the meaning of "practice," of "parsing," of "process," and such like. Write the answer to each, that you may be assured that your definition is distinct. Compare it with the definitions of the same word in the dictionaries, and observe the various meanings in which it has been used. You will thus learn also the terms that have the same, or nearly the same, meaning, a large vocabulary of which is necessary to composition, for frequent repetitions of the same word, especially in the same sentence, is an inelegance, if not a positive error. Compare your definition with that of the lexicographer, and your use of the word with the uses of it by the authorities cited in the dictionary, and you will thus measure your own progress in the science of words. This useful exercise may be made extremely amusing as well as instructive, if friends, having a like desire for self-improvement, will join you in the practice of it; and I can assure you that an evening will be thus spent pleasantly as well as profitably. You
make a merry game of it- a game of speculation. Given a word : each one of the company in turn writes his definition of it ; Webster's Dictionary is then referred to, and that which comes nearest the authentic definition wins the honour or the prize. It may be a sweepstakes carried off by him whose definition hits the mark the most nearly. But, whether in company or alone, you should not omit the frequent practice of this exercise, for none will impart such a power of accurate expression and supply such an abundance of apt words wherein to embody the delicate hues and various shadings of thought.
So with sentences or the combinations of words. Much skill is required for their construction. They must convey your meaning accurately, and as far as possible in the natural order of thought, and yet they must not be complex, involved, verbose, stiff, ungainly, or tautological. They must be brief, but not curt; explicit, but not verbose. Here, again, good taste must be your guide, rather than rules which teachers propound, but which the pupil never follows. In truth, there is no rule for writing sentences. It is easy to say what may not be done, what are the besetting faults, and perhaps to offer some hints for their avoidance. But there are no rules by observing which you can write well; for not only does every style require its own construction of a sentence, but almost
combination of thought will demand a different shape in the sentence after you
by which it is conveyed. A standard sentence, like a standard style, is a pedantic absurdity, and, if you would avoid it, you must not try to write by rule, though you may refer to rules in order to find out your faults
have written. Lastly, inasmuch as your design is, not only to influence but to please, it will be necessary for you to cultivate what may be termed the graces of composition. It is not enough that you instruct the minds of your readers, you must gratify their taste and win their attention, imparting pleasure in the very process of imparting information. Hence you must make choice of words that convey no coarse meanings and excite no disagreeable associations. You are not to sacrifice expression to elegauce ; but so, likewise, you are not to be content with a word or a sentence, if it is offensive or even unpleasing, merely because it does express your meaning. The precise boundary between refinement and rudeness cannot be defined; your own cultivated taste must tell you the point at which power or explicitness is to be preferred to delicacy. One more caution I would impress upon you, that you pause and give careful consideration to it before you permit a coarse expression, on account of its correctness, to pass your critical review when you revise your manuscript, and again when you read the proof, if ever you rush into print.
And much might be said also about the music of speech. Your words and sentences must be musical. They must not come harshly from the tongue, if uttered, or grate upon the ear, if heard. There is a rhythm in words which should be observed in all composition, written or oral. The perception of it is a natural gift,