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Published: The Experiment - August 7th, 2018
Sam Leith’s Write to the Point is indeed a master class on the fundamentals of writing for any purpose. He is a literary editor at the Spectator and columnist for The Financial Times, Evening Standard, and Prospect. His writing has appeared in other publications and he has written several other books including Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama. His observations about language-what makes it tick, how it works (or doesn’t), and various ways to improve it are focused, entertaining, and born of experience.
He takes you from the parts of speech through punctuation, rewriting exercises, techniques of accomplishing effective writing, common mistakes and controversies, and observations on writing for different purposes. He provides many fine recommendations on achieving a desired register, or tone, in your work. For me, the most important result gained from reading this work was learning ways to read my own writing analytically. Writing is like a musical instrument that must be properly tuned before it can sound right.
His advice is expert: Strive to produce right-branching sentences, with the subject and verb up front, (that is, part of the time), be direct, avoid cliche, begin with the most important elements, and consider the “camera angles” of your prose. Pay attention to how your writing sounds when you read it. Think of the effects of punctuation, syntax and choice of words on its cadence. Do they give it the kind of emphasis you want? Above all, seek brevity and clarity. And learn when to break the rules.
For anyone who enjoys the craft of language, and especially anyone who really wants to write well, this book will be a joy to read, and even to reread.
And since Sam Leith is an accomplished and influential writer, I wanted to get his ideas on a few topics. I very much appreciate his response to my questions.
32nd Avenue Books: How do you see language changing in the future?
Sam Leith: I think what we've seen is that thanks to digital media everyone now masters a much greater range of written registers and idioms than they used to: linguistic change moves faster, too, with in-words and borrowings going global in a matter of months rather than decades. So I think the melting pot is getting bigger, and richer, and more complicated -- and that's all to the good.
32nd Avenue Books: Can you describe a single, most important thing that makes good writing good?
Sam Leith: There’s no single thing, because as I hope comes over in my book, using language well is *always* situational: it's about the right words for the right context and audience. But I do think that cadence is much, much more important than you'd think from the very limited extent to which it's discussed. A good ear for the rhythm of words makes a huge difference.
32nd Avenue Books: Was there someone who had a major influence on you writing?
Sam Leith: There are so many writers I admire, and whose effects I've probably borrowed or imitated here and there, that it's hard to say. Some of David Foster Wallace's vamping between high and low styles, I think, has rubbed off on me in my journalism, and I've read a lot of poetry growing up so everything from Sylvia Plath's sound-effects or Auden's simultaneous exactness and talkiness to the stately cadences and unexpected word choices of early Robert Lowell have probably influenced my ear. Perhaps the likes of Berryman and Elizabeth Bishop and Nathanael West and Evelyn Waugh for taking a cheerful approach to dark material. But I can't point to a single writer I've been directly shaped by. It's all part of the mental mulch. Mostly I've been influenced by the people over the years -- parents, teachers, friends, colleagues -- who have pressed books on me and encouraged me to read very widely and enthusiastically. The more you read -- and in my case that's everything from Chris Claremont to Shakespeare -- the more you learn to write, in my opinion.