Composition: How to Write in Four Easy Steps

Composition: How to Write

What shall I write? (Source: Punch)

In his essay, "How to Write," American author Edward Everett Hale, gives four pointers to aspiring writers:

In Nuce: Literature and Language Geekland
Know what you want to say.
"Whenever I am going to write anything, I find it best to think first what I am going to say. This is a lesson which nine writers out of ten have never learned. Even the people who write leading articles for the newspapers do not, half the time, know what they are going to say when they begin. And I have heard many a sermon which was evidently written by a man who, when he began, only knew what his first head was to be. The sermon was a sort of riddle to himself when he started, and he was curious as to how it would come out.
I remember a very worthy gentleman who sometimes spoke to the Sunday school when I was a boy. He would begin without the slightest idea of what he was going to say, but he was sure that the end of the first sentence would help him to the second.
This is (not) an example:
"My dear young friends, I do not know that I have any thing to say to you, but I am very much obliged to your teachers for asking me to address you this beautiful morning. — The morning is so beautiful after the refreshment of the night, that as I walked to church, and looked around, and breathed the fresh air, I felt more than ever what a privilege it is to live in so wonderful a world. — For the world, dear children, has been all contrived and set in order for us by a Power so much higher than our own, that we might enjoy our own lives and live for the happiness and good of our brothers and our sisters.
"Our brothers and our sisters they are indeed, though some of them are in distant lands, and beneath other skies, and parted from us by the broad oceans. — These oceans, indeed, do not so much divide the world as* they unite it. They make it one. The winds which blow over them, and the currents which move their waters, all are ruled by a higher law, that they may contribute to commerce and to the good of man.— And man, my dear children," etc., etc., etc.
You see there is no end to it. It is a sort of capping verses with yourself, where you take up the last word or the last idea of one sentence, and begin the next with it, quite indifferent where you come out, if you only "occupy the time" that is appointed. It is very easy for you; but, my dear friends, it is very hard for those who read and who listen.
The vice goes so far, indeed, that you may divide literature into two great classes of books. The smaller class of the two consists of the books written by people who had something to say. They had in life learned something, or seen something, or done something, which they really wanted and needed to tell to other people. They told it. And their writings make, perhaps, a twentieth part of the printed literature of the world. It is the part which contains all that is worth reading. The other nineteen twentieths make up the other class.
In Nuce: Literature and Language Geekland
Say it.
That is, do not begin by saying something else which you think will lead up to what you want to say. I remember, when they tried to teach me to sing, they told me to "think of eight and sing seven." That may be a very good rule for singing, but it is not a good rule for talking or writing."

In Nuce: Literature and Language Geekland
Use your own daily vocabulary. 
Thirdly, and always: Use your own language. I mean the language you are accustomed to use in daily life. If your everyday language is not fit for a letter or for print, it is not fit for talk. And if, by any series of joking or fun, at school or at home, you have got into the habit of using slang in talk, which is not fit for print, why, the sooner you get out of it the better.
Remember that the very highest compliment paid to any thing printed is paid when a person hearing it read aloud thinks it is the remark of the reader made in conversation. Both writer and reader then receive the highest possible praise.
 In Nuce: Literature and Language GeeklandA short word is better than a long one. 
Here is a piece of weak English. It is not bad in other regards, but simply weak.
"Entertaining unlimited confidence in your intelligent and patriotic devotion to the public interest, and being conscious of no motives on my part which are separable from the honor and advancement of my country, I hope it may be my privilege to deserve and secure, not only your cordial cooperation in great public measures, but also those relations of mutual confidence and regard, which it is always so desirable to cultivate between members of coordinate branches of the government."
Take that for an exercise in translating into shorter words. Strike out the unnecessary words, and see if it does not come out stronger. I think this sentence would have been better if it had been couched in thirty-five words instead of eighty-one. I think we should have lost nothing of the author's meaning if he had said,—
"I have full trust in you. I am sure that I seek only the honor and advance of the country. I hope, therefore, I may earn your respect and regard, while we heartily work together."
I am fond of telling the story of the words which a distinguished friend of mine used in accepting a hard post of duty. He said, —
"I do not think I am fit for this post. But my friends say I am, and I trust them. I shall take it, and when I am in it, I shall do as well as I can."
It is a very grand speech. Observe that it has not one word which is more than one syllable. As it happens, also, every word is Saxon, — there is not one spurt of Latin. Yet this was a learned man, who, if he chose, could have said the whole in Latin. But he was one American gentleman talking to another American gentleman, and therefore he chose to use [plain speech].
Pin It button on image hover