Society & Culture & Entertainment Languages

A Note on the Writer"s Craft, by John Erskine

"Write with nouns and verbs," say Strunk and White in The Elements of Style, "not with adjectives and adverbs." Yet in this passage from an essay published in 1946, John Erskine challenges that conventional piece of advice. "What you wish to say is not found in the noun," he argues, "but in what you add to qualify the noun."

from A Note on the Writer's Craft*

by John Erskine

Let me suggest here one principle of the writer's craft, which though known to practitioners I have never seen discussed in print.

The principle is this: When you write, you make a point, not by subtracting as though you sharpened a pencil, but by adding. When you put one word after another, your statement should be more precise the more you add. If the result is otherwise, you have added the wrong thing, or you have added more than was needed.

This principle is provocative enough even in a bare statement, but if you think it through, if in practice you reach the conclusion it forces, you see the startling gulf between the grammar which is taught and learned and the grammar which is used. In a loose way grammar distinguishes between the noun substantive and the noun adjective. But the grammarian leaves with the unwary the impression that the substantive, since it can stand alone, is more important than the adjective, that the verb is more important than the adverb, that the main clause is more important than the subordinate.

In the use of language, however, the truth is precisely the reverse. What you wish to say is not found in the noun but in what you add to qualify the noun.

The noun is only a grappling iron to hitch your mind to the reader's. The noun by itself adds nothing to the reader's information; it is the name of something he knows already, and if he does not know it, you cannot do business with him. The noun, the verb, and the main clause serve merely as a base on which the meaning will rise.

The modifier is the essential part of any sentence. So true this is that intelligent people, in spite of grammar, always put the more important statement in the subordinate clause. Would you say, "When I got up this morning, the sun rose," or "When the sun rose this morning, I got up"?

In practice, therefore, the sentence proceeds from something the reader may be expected to know already toward whatever new thing we wish to tell him. We proceed by addition. This statement may seem to be contradicted by the word-order in certain languages, at times in every language, but this apparent contradiction disappears when the language is spoken and the voice contributes an additional emphasis which is not recorded on the page.

"It's a cold day."

"I'll wear my coat."

"It's very cold."

"Then I'll wear my heavy coat."
The addition is in the emphasis upon very and upon heavy. Our attention is sometimes called to the advantage of omitting all modifiers and confining ourselves to nouns, pronouns, and verbs. The best tombstone and monumental descriptions follow this style, but here, it should be noted, the intention is to commemorate, to remind, rather than to say anything new. Many a visitor to Quebec has felt the eloquence of the famous inscription on the monument--an inscription which gives nothing but the names, "Montcalm and Wolfe." Yet the visitor must know about these heroes in advance, if their mere names are to arouse emotion.
It is not by accident that one sentence follows another. At least it should not be by accident. Sentences are added by the same principle which should control the addition of words. We speak somewhat carelessly of developing an idea, as though the process of thinking did not begin until the pen moved. Certainly the process of expression does clarify and enrich the idea with which we started, but we are likely to begin with a complete concept, vaguely indicated in the title, and sharpened gradually. The last sentence of the last paragraph completes our meaning. That is why we know it is the last.

To teach this principle of composition would of course play some havoc with our ordinary academic procedure. I speak of the matter in passing without much expectation that school routine will be changed. Don't I know how comforting routine is, and with what reluctance any of us would throw it away and try imagination instead? . . .

Just where an essay or story should end is determined by the writer. Just where it should begin depends on the reader. A book, a story, an essay, should present first that part of the subject which the reader knows. There seems to be no successful variation of this procedure. The method of communication in words is the same whether you are uttering a chapter or a sentence. You must begin with the noun--that is, with whatever you and your audience have in common. If I say, "Charles," and you know who Charles is, we understand each other, but if this name is the beginning of my communication, I have as yet communicated nothing; to say anything new I must modify the previous knowledge of Charles which is shared both by you and by me, I must add a statement, such as "is leaving town." Of course if someone has previously asked, "Who is leaving town?" and I utter the single word, "Charles," that word, since it is additional, will be significant.

We should begin, then, at the point where we and the reader are in closest accord. We should--but do we? Often we do not, and why we don't is a mystery of nature. Though writers differ otherwise from teachers of composition, they seem equally befuddled when they are asked how and where an essay or story should begin. The teachers usually ignore the question, and all but the best writers, even if they know the answer, are usually unwilling to act on it.

*"A Note on the Writer's Craft" by John Erskine was originally published in Twentieth Century English, edited by W. S. Knickerbocker (Philosophical Library, 1946).

Leave a reply