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2022.09.09 为了成为更好的作家,应该读什么书

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How to write
What to read to become a better writer
Five texts that explain how to write simply and well
A group of young women working on a script in Greenwich Village, New York City, June 1954. (Photo by Ed Feingersh/Pix/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Sep 9th 2022



The first words are the hardest. For many of us writing is a slog. Words drip with difficulty onto the page—and frequently they seem to be the wrong ones, in the wrong order. Yet few pause to ask why writing is hard, why what we write may be bad, or even what is meant by “bad”. Fortunately for anyone seeking to become a better writer, the works recommended here provide enlightenment and reassurance. Yes, writing is hard. But if you can first grasp the origins and qualities of bad writing, you may learn to diagnose and cure problems in your own prose (keeping things simple helps a lot). Similarly heartening is the observation that most first drafts are second-rate, so becoming a skilled rewriter is the thing. These five works are excellent sources of insight and inspiration.

Politics and the English Language. By George Orwell. Available on the Orwell Foundation’s website

Starting with Orwell’s essay may seem as clichéd as the hackneyed phrases he derides in it. Published in 1946, this polemic against poor and perfidious writing will be familiar to many. But its advice on how to write is as apposite now as then. (Besides, it is short and free.) Orwell analyses the unoriginal, “dying” metaphors that still haunt the prose of academics, politicians, professionals and hacks. He lambasts the “meaningless words” and “pretentious diction” of his day; many of the horrors he cites remain common. To save writers from regurgitating these, Orwell proposes six now-canonical rules. The first five boil down to: prefer short, everyday words and the active voice, cut unneeded words and strive for fresh imagery. The sixth—“break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous”—displays the difficulty of pinning down something as protean as language. But this has not stopped others trying.

Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. By Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup. Pearson Education; 246 pages; $66.65 and £43.99

In “Style”, Joseph Williams, who taught English at the University of Chicago, instructs writers on how to revise their scribblings into something clearer, more concise and coherent. (Aptly for a text about rewriting, it is the latest in a long line of reworkings of Williams’s teachings on the subject, which appeared under various titles.) Unlike Orwell, who devised high-level rules for writers to wield by instinct, Williams proposes nuanced “principles” and shows how to apply them. Whereas, for instance, Orwell exhorted writers to “never use the passive where you can use the active”, Williams explains how passives can sometimes help create a sense of flow. This forms part of his coverage of “cohesion” and “coherence”, which could upend the way you write. Insightful, too, is Williams’s guidance on pruning prose and on the ills and virtues of nominalisations—nouns formed from verbs (as “nominalisation” is from “nominalise”), which often send sentences awry. Such technical details, summary sections and practice exercises make “Style” the most textbook-like work on this list. It may also be the most useful.

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. By William Zinsser. HarperCollins; 321 pages; $17.99 and £13.99

Less overtly practical than “Style” but far more fun to read is “On Writing Well”. William Zinsser, who was an American journalist and teacher, is a witty commentator on the writer’s craft with a talent for aphorisms (eg, “the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components”). He embraces slippery subjects like “rhythm” and “voice” that tend to defy rules or principles. But he purveys practical wisdom, too, diagnosing stylistic blunders, exploring genres from memoir to business writing, and analysing passages from well-known works and his own journalism. Zinsser is always encouraging. Introducing a marked-up extract from drafts of “On Writing Well”, a spider’s web of self-edits, he counsels: “Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair.” Zinsser also gives fellow writers much to emulate. His paragraph-ending sentences are a marvel.

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. By Steven Pinker. Penguin; 368 pages; and $18 and £10.99

An expert on words and brains, Steven Pinker wants to help writers write better by getting them into the minds of their readers. The celebrated psycholinguist argues that “the curse of knowledge” is the biggest cause of bad writing: like children, writers forget that others often do not know what they know. Bad writers tend to dwell on irrelevant points and make logical connections that are logical only to them. Their prose—the type beloved of academics, bureaucrats and businessfolk—abounds in abstract nouns and luxuriates in long sentences. By contrast, good writing (“classic style”, in Mr Pinker’s phrase) assembles concrete words into straightforward sentences that readers find simple to grasp. Why should this be so? Using striking and funny examples, Mr Pinker shows how working memory, which stores syntactic constructions until they are complete, is easily swamped. In closing, he joins the battle over English usage, as our full review of “The Sense of Style” describes.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Merriam-Webster; 989 pages; $29.95

Every writer needs a reference book to look up troublesome issues of grammar and usage; no one has memorised them all. The quality of such books has improved in recent years, but one from the 1990s has earned its keep since then. Merriam-Webster (mwdeu) is America’s best-known dictionary publisher. This guide contains not exactly definitions, though, but mini-essays: on individual words (can “data” be singular?), confusingly similar ones (such as “comprise” and “compose”) and grammatical conundrums (such as the split infinitive, dangling modifiers and so on).

What distinguishes mwdeu is its relentless empiricism. Where a debatable claim about correct usage is made, it surveys the history of other guides and their recommendations, as well as going to Merriam-Webster’s huge bank of citations from literature, non-fiction and journalism. In many cases, a proposed rule (such as the ban on split infinitives) is shown to be baseless. But in other cases, the guide is conservative. On the “comma fault” (joining two independent clauses with nothing more than a comma), mwdeu finds it in some great authors’ literary work, but warns readers that “you probably should not try the device unless you are very sure of what you want it to accomplish.” Good sense all round.

Also try:
The Economist proffers more advice on writing in its “Style Guide” and in the Johnson column on language. Our columnist, a co-author of this piece, also wrote much of Economist Education’s course on business writing. This explores many of the topics discussed above, as well as oft-overlooked subjects—how to write on deadline, for instance, or repurpose your opus for social media. Above all, it gives students a chance to practise and get feedback on their writing.

Free tools can help. To discover whether your writing is “lean” or in “heart attack” territory, try The Writer’s Diet. This website tests how bloated passages are by adjectives, prepositions and so on. Or paste your prose into the oed Text Visualiser, from Oxford University Press, to uncover the origins of your words. Many of English’s most concrete and vivid words derive from Anglo-Saxon. These tend also to be short and punchy—echoing Winston Churchill, The Economist once argued (entirely in monosyllables) that “short words are best”.■

1954年6月,在纽约市的格林威治村,一群年轻女性正在编写剧本。(Photo by Ed Feingersh/Pix/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

第一句话是最难的。对我们中的许多人来说,写作是一件艰难的事情。词语艰难地滴落在纸上--而且常常是错误的词语,顺序也不对。然而,很少有人停下来问为什么写作是困难的,为什么我们写的东西可能是坏的,甚至 "坏 "是什么意思。幸运的是,对于寻求成为更好的作家的人来说,这里推荐的作品提供了启迪和保证。是的,写作是困难的。但是,如果你能首先掌握不良写作的起源和质量,你就可能学会诊断和治疗自己散文中的问题(保持简单的东西有很大帮助)。同样令人振奋的是,大多数初稿都是二流的,所以成为一个熟练的改写者才是关键。这五部作品是洞察力和灵感的绝佳来源。

政治与英语》(Politics and the English Language)。乔治-奥威尔著。可在奥威尔基金会的网站上查阅

从奥威尔的文章开始,可能会像他在文中嘲笑的那些陈词滥调一样显得老套。这篇发表于1946年的针对拙劣和敷衍的写作的论战,对许多人来说是熟悉的。但它关于如何写作的建议现在和当时一样适用。(奥威尔分析了非原创的、"垂死的 "比喻,这些比喻仍然困扰着学者、政治家、专业人士和黑客的散文。他抨击了他那个时代的 "无意义的词语 "和 "自命不凡的修辞";他列举的许多可怕的东西仍然很普遍。为了使作家们不至于重复这些东西,奥威尔提出了六条现已成为经典的规则。前五条可以归结为:喜欢短小的日常用语和主动语态,削减不需要的词语,并努力追求新鲜的意象。第六条--"打破这些规则中的任何一条,都比说任何公然的野蛮话要快"--显示了确定像语言这样的东西的难度。但这并没有阻止其他人的尝试。

风格。清晰和优雅的教训。作者:Joseph M. Williams和Joseph Bizup。培生教育;246页;66.65美元和43.99英镑

在《风格》一书中,曾在芝加哥大学教授英语的约瑟夫-威廉姆斯指导作家如何将他们的涂鸦修改为更清晰、更简洁和更连贯的东西。(对于一篇关于改写的文章来说,这是威廉姆斯关于这个主题的一长串教义中最新的一篇,这些教义以不同的标题出现。) 与奥威尔不同的是,他为作家设计了高层次的规则,让他们凭本能来挥舞,而威廉斯提出了细微的 "原则",并说明了如何应用这些原则。例如,奥威尔劝告作家 "在可以使用主动语态的地方绝不使用被动语态",而威廉斯则解释了被动语态有时可以帮助创造一种流动感。这构成了他对 "凝聚力 "和 "连贯性 "报道的一部分,这可能会颠覆你的写作方式。威廉斯对修剪散文和名词化的弊端和优点的指导也很有见地,名词化是由动词组成的名词(如 "nominalisation "来自 "nominalise"),它经常使句子出现问题。这些技术细节、总结部分和练习使《风格》成为本榜单中最像教科书的作品。它也可能是最有用的。

关于写好文章。写作非小说的经典指南。作者:William Zinsser。哈珀柯林斯出版社;321页;17.99美元和13.99英镑

与《风格》相比,《论写作》没有那么明显的实用性,但阅读起来更有趣。William Zinsser是一位美国记者和教师,他是一位诙谐的评论家,对作家的手艺有独到的见解(例如,"好文章的秘诀是把每一句话都剥离到最干净的部分")。他接受像 "节奏 "和 "声音 "这样滑稽的主题,这些主题往往不符合规则或原则。但他也提供了实用的智慧,诊断文体上的错误,探索从回忆录到商业写作的体裁,并分析了知名作品和他自己的新闻作品中的段落。Zinsser总是给人以鼓励。在介绍《论写作》草稿中的一个标记性摘录时,他建议说:"很少有句子在第一次,甚至第三次就能写对。在绝望的时候要记住这一点。" 津泽也给其他作家提供了很多可以效仿的地方。他的段落结尾的句子是一个奇迹。

风格的感觉。思考者的21世纪写作指南》(The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century)。作者:史蒂芬-平克。企鹅公司;368页;18美元和10.99英镑

作为文字和大脑方面的专家,史蒂文-平克希望通过让作家进入读者的头脑来帮助他们写得更好。这位知名的心理语言学家认为,"知识的诅咒 "是不良写作的最大原因:像孩子一样,作家们忘记了别人往往不知道他们知道的东西。糟糕的作家倾向于纠缠于不相关的观点,并建立只有他们才知道的逻辑关系。他们的散文--学术界、官僚和商业界所喜爱的类型--充斥着抽象的名词,沉溺于长句子。相比之下,好的文章(用平克先生的话说是 "经典风格")将具体的词语组合成直截了当的句子,让读者觉得容易掌握。为什么会这样呢?平克先生用醒目而有趣的例子说明了工作记忆是如何被淹没的,工作记忆在句法结构完成之前都会储存起来。最后,他加入了对英语用法的争论,正如我们对《风格的感觉》的全面评论所描述的那样。


每个作家都需要一本参考书来查找语法和用法方面的麻烦问题;没有人能够把它们全部记住。近年来,这类书籍的质量有所提高,但有一本来自20世纪90年代的书籍,自此赢得了它的地位。梅里亚姆-韦伯斯特(mwdeu)是美国最知名的字典出版商。不过,这本指南所包含的并不完全是定义,而是小型文章:关于个别单词("data "可以是单数吗?)、令人困惑的类似单词(如 "comprise "和 "compose")以及语法难题(如分裂不定式、悬空修饰语等等)。

mwdeu的与众不同之处在于其无情的经验主义。在对正确用法有争议的地方,它调查了其他指南的历史和他们的建议,以及梅里亚姆-韦伯斯特庞大的文学、非小说和新闻界的引文库。在许多情况下,一项拟议的规则(如禁止使用分裂不定式)被证明是毫无根据的。但在其他情况下,该指南是保守的。关于 "逗号故障"(只用一个逗号连接两个独立分句),Mwdeu在一些伟大作家的文学作品中发现了它,但他警告读者,"除非你非常确定你想让它达到什么目的,否则你可能不应该尝试这种方法。" 这是很有道理的。

经济学人》在其 "风格指南 "和约翰逊的语言专栏中提供了更多关于写作的建议。我们的专栏作家是这篇文章的合著者,他还撰写了《经济学人教育》中关于商业写作的大部分课程。这门课程探讨了上面讨论的许多主题,以及经常被忽视的主题--例如,如何在截止日期前写作,或者将你的作品重新用于社交媒体。最重要的是,它为学生提供了一个练习和获得写作反馈的机会。

免费工具可以提供帮助。要发现你的写作是 "瘦 "还是 "心脏病",可以试试 "作家的饮食"。这个网站通过形容词、介词等测试段落的臃肿程度。或者将你的散文粘贴到牛津大学出版社的oed Text Visualiser中,以发现你的词汇的来源。英语中许多最具体、最生动的词汇都来自盎格鲁-撒克逊语。这些词也倾向于短小精悍--与温斯顿-丘吉尔的观点相呼应,《经济学人》曾经认为(完全是单音节),"短小的词是最好的"。
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