The Writing Arc
Lead Author(s): Steve Sansom, Brian H. Kyser, Bruce Martin, Robert Miller
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The Writing Arc is a foundational guide for first-year composition students centered on the functional, core principles of the writing process. From the earliest stages of discovery, invention, structuring, and drafting and on through writing, revising, editing, documenting and formatting, and presenting, The Writing Arc provides students an in-depth exploration of the various parts of the writing process and how they fit together in the context of various modes of writing. Each chapter is punctuated by writing samples from student and professional writers in addition to the wide-ranging examples of writing included in an Additional Readings section.
Chapter 1: Why Write?
Deciding how to write a composition often misses the point. The how is important, as we will soon discuss, but it should come only after you have answered a more pertinent question: Why should you write in the first place? Whom are you addressing? What is your purpose in addressing that audience? If we think about this problem logically, or even intuitively, we arrive at a fairly obvious conclusion: when we speak to someone, we typically know to whom we are speaking. There is always the assumption of an audience. Even when you talk to yourself in the mirror, you have an audience. You are addressing an alter ego, an invisible friend, a projection of a friend or boss you might need to interact with later that day—or perhaps just talking aloud to yourself, trying to convince yourself of a particular course of action, working out an opinion, pulling yourself out of repeated procrastination, or making yourself feel better about a particular relationship.
While the analogy of talking to yourself in the mirror might strike you as awkward, the truth is we spend a great deal of time conversing with ourselves, and we almost always have a purpose when doing so. Knowing the purpose often dictates how we talk, whether we are soft-voiced or firm, impassioned or scolding, informative or analytical. This assumption of an audience when speaking, even to the face in the mirror, is not that different from the assumption of an audience when writing. Like the mirror analogy, our persuasiveness will largely depend on how well we address our audience.
Key differences exist between verbal and written communication. When you speak aloud, you cannot take the words back. While you can rehearse and rehearse and shape the message exactly that you wish to convey, when the time comes to speak to your audience, there are no “take backs” or “redos” unless your audience is particularly understanding—and even then, the effectiveness of your message and the audience’s impression of you as a speaker may be affected by your inability to express your intentions in a clear and competent manner. Writing lacks some of the communication possibilities of conversation: we can’t use nonverbal methods, such as hand gestures, facial expressions, or body language, and we are not able to raise or lower our voices. Yet writing encompasses many attributes of the spoken word while also providing the benefits of careful and conscious planning and pruning.
Because written communication is often a slow, meticulous process rather than a one-shot performance, writing also serves as a form of exploration. Once you begin to see writing as a method for finding and conveying ideas and developing solutions to complex problems, then you begin to see your compositions as part of a greater process of creation, re-creation, and fine-tuning an idea or message. Instead of talking to the face in the mirror, you might instead prepare a written explanation in the form of an email, blog post, or essay. When doing so, you are engaging in a recursive process—a process you can repeat many times over—a process that, practiced enough times, helps you to discover how best to communicate (Figure 1.1).
There is no such thing as writing (or communicating) without a purpose. Ask yourself: what would communicating without purpose even look or sound like? Perhaps an appropriate analogy would be to travel without knowing your destination. Even when you walk out the door with no specific destination in mind, your goal is to wander—which is itself a purpose.
Consider how this translates to writing. Many beginning writers think they can tell stories about themselves or their friends, but they are at a loss when it comes to crafting the elements necessary to shape an essay or an informative article. Yet even if your purpose is simply to entertain through a narrative or a blog posting, there is a good chance your intention is also to inform via the same story. Thus, understanding your writing objective, your purpose, will help you shape your message.
The concept of “academic writing” is often misunderstood. Many student writers have ill-formed preconceptions about what makes a good essay. Whether these notions spill over from high school or are a result of our standardized test-taking culture, often the result is that the student spends an excessive amount of time trying to express the right answer. For the student, the audience is often that single intellect, the instructor, who enforces the right answer, the grammatically correct answer, ignoring the multitude of other possible answers. Sadly, this expectation crushes the idea that writing should be an exploration—that through description and analysis we can create new interpretations, new insights, and thus new knowledge. This concept of writing for the right answer greatly oversimplifies what writing is all about.
Academic writing is, and should be, an exploration, a reinvention of experience into fresh knowledge; it is an organized method for writing about ideas and sharing them with an audience in a clear and concise manner. Your purpose should always be intrinsic to the writing itself, whether you are seeking to inform, compare, or analyze an issue of interest to yourself or to the world at large.
Consider the following example: Two of your classmates have asked you to read their papers. The first paper is a perfectly executed five-paragraph essay on a trivial topic while the second is a multiparagraph article analyzing a relevant dilemma in your community. Assuming both of your classmates’ compositions are clearly written and concise, which paper would you prefer to read?
Just as it is dangerous to use the words “never” or “always,” it is not a good practice to consider writing as content-free. You are always writing about something, and a writer always endeavors to inform her reader about that something—that is the writer’s purpose. While finding your purpose, what some call a topic, is not always easy, you know about and are interested in a lot of things that can become subjects for writing assignments. For example, starting with yourself, consider the following connections you make with the world around you.
- Local. The persons, places, and issues affecting you every day within your family, community, school, city, county, and state.
- Global. The persons, places, and issues that may not affect you every day but that have profound implications for you as you grow up in an increasingly connected global village.
- Cultural. The persons, places, and issues that involve you in the densely packed, modern, technologically driven worlds of music, art, sports, religion, and social networks.
Furthermore, what you write about will, to a great extent, dictate the way you write—the way you will structure and develop your topic. Consider the following three most common purposes for writing about a topic in a college composition classroom (Figure 1.2).
- To describe or inform. Strong writing, first and foremost, attempts to inform, either through description, illustration and example, narration, or classification.
- To compare and contrast. We use comparison and contrast every day as we make decisions about all sorts of things, such as which phone to buy, which instructor to take, or who the greatest soccer star is. It is also a powerful writing method that allows us to express in sharp detail the similarities and differences between any two objects or ideas and thus help our audience to understand both with greater clarity.
- To analyze. To really understand anything, whether it is how to set up our new iPad, how to solve an equation in algebra, or how to get along with the opposite sex, we must study it in detail; we must analyze it. Through critically evaluating a topic, writers can draw inferences and meaning from events, speeches, texts, other forms of communication, such as television, books, and digital media, and even the language used by our peers.
Choose one of the following purposes for writing about each of the topics listed below to describe, inform, entertain, compare and contrast, analyze, explain, persuade, or define. (You might wish to consult the descriptions for these purposes.) While several may fit each topic, list only one. Be prepared to explain and defend your choice in your group.
Vacations Phones Dreams Jobs Climate Change
Effective writing always presupposes an audience. To whom are you writing? There is no writing to the empty room or for posterity. Recalling our earlier example, even when rehearsing in front of the mirror, you are addressing a very specific someone, imagined or real. Whether writing an assignment for your instructor, composing a blog post, or an article for broad consumption, you should imagine your audience as an intelligent, open-minded group of people interested in the world, curious and respectful of a certain decorum and precision, moral in substance, and willing to learn about new ideas and experiences. Given these qualities, a writer needs to write competently, convincingly, and without error or distraction.
Obviously, this general audience description should serve only as a starting point. Should you choose to compose for a more specific audience, say a readership composed of diehard comic book fans, a conference of musicians, or a mainstream magazine for software engineers, you would need to adjust your tone and use of jargon (technical terminology) so these readers will accept your credibility and will be able to relate to you.
Write a short paragraph describing the intended audience for each of the following topics. Discuss these in your group.
Sexual Assault on College Campuses Panera Bread
Animal Liberation Apple Watch
Every speaker embodies a voice she uses when speaking with others. Many factors central to the speaker can influence her voice—gender, ethnic background, upbringing, and education, for example. Also, the situation we are in and our mood affect our voice; we sound different when we are happy, sad, angry, or being reprimanded by a parent or a boss. Finally, we can consciously assume different attitudes and tones of voice. Thus, we have many different methods, or registers, available to us when we speak. The same is true when we write. We can assume an objective, lawyer-like tone; we can write derisively, humorously, ironically, or angrily; we can write eloquently or bluntly.
The truth is, when we speak or write, we generally assume the voice to which we feel our audience will best respond. When you speak to your employer, for instance, you might focus on a respectful, contained tone so as not to break employer-employee etiquette. When speaking with a group of friends your own age, however, you will probably incorporate more intimate colloquial terms and even slang phrases. When telling a story or sharing a personal experience, you might evoke a more familiar, casual tone.
The English language, for all of its grammatical rules and definitions, is an elastic language, capable of great reconfiguration and adjustment. It can handle the incorporation of words from other languages as well as new words. The idea that only one voice should be used for all of your writing runs contrary to logic and creative practice. Take a look at these two examples.
Family structure and interaction assume cardinal functions in the social control theories and delinquency. However, myriad factors are assimilated with family configuration and criminal behavior and consequently folk’s relations and felony. Akers R.L. (1998). Family interface dynamics include: management and control, character prop up, compassionate and dependence cherished communiqué, influential communication, parental condemnation of peers and variance; these factors have the equivalent upshots on crime in both-parents. Akers, R. L. (1998). “Family Social Control.” Sociology. UK Essays. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.
¿ Comó empezo everything? How did I stumble upon it? Walking the streets of El Barrio in New York City, at least initially. Wandering around, as the Mexican expression puts it, con la oreja al vuelo, with ears wide open. Later on, of course, my appreciation for Spanglish evolved dramatically as I traveled around los Unaited Esteits. But at the beginning was New York. It always is, isn’t it? Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language. Ilan Stavans. 2003.
The first example is typical of what we might expect from an academic essay, but is the second example any less valuable because it incorporates Spanish words? Consider how both of these essays seek to inform the reader about similar issues. Is one more or less effective than the other? Do these voices address different audiences?
This concept of changing our voice to match a given audience has many names—code-switching, variation, using different registers—but in the end, it is an important feature of all written communication. Once you have chosen your purpose and your audience, you must choose the voice you think will be the most appropriate for that situation.
Read the paragraphs below, and then write a short description of the voice you hear in each. Discuss with your group. You might first want to look at Understanding Voice and Tone in Writing, by Julie Wildhaber, on the Grammar Girl site, Quick and Dirty Tips. (Google it.) Paragraph A below is taken from Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” (see Additional Readings for the complete essay). Paragraph B is taken from E. O. Wilson’s “Why Humans, Like Ants, Need a Tribe” (see Chapter 8 for the complete essay).
A. As a culture, we call ourselves Spanish when referring to ourselves as a linguistic group. It is then that we forget our predominant Indian genes. We are 70-80 percent Indian. We call ourselves Hispanic or Spanish-American or Latin American or Latin when linking ourselves to other Spanish-speaking peoples of the Western hemisphere and when copping out. We call ourselves Mexican-American to signify we are neither Mexican nor American, but more the noun “American” than the adjective “Mexican.”
B. Any excuse for a real war will do, so long as it is seen as necessary to protect the tribe. The remembrance of past horrors has no effect. It should not be thought that war, often accompanied by genocide, is a cultural artifact of a few societies. Nor has it been an aberration of history, a result of the growing pains of our species’ maturation. Wars and genocide have been universal and eternal, respecting no particular time or culture. Overall, big wars have been replaced around the world by small wars of the kind and magnitude more typical of hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies. Some societies have tried to eliminate torture, execution, and the murder of civilians, but those fighting smaller wars do not comply.
Finally, once you have found the purpose for your writing project and directed it, with the right voice, to the chosen audience, you can engage in the process of finding the proper form for your words. Because the structure of your writing comes directly from the process of discovery and exploration, the majority of this textbook seeks to create a walk-through of this process, examining as best as we can the variety of shapes and delivery methods for your own ideas. Even if you feel you are writing the “same old thing” others have written about before, by engaging in this process and by permitting yourself—empowering yourself—to have a say, you are leaving the door open for a fresh exploration of the idea from which you may potentially draw conclusions in a profoundly new way.
Before crossing the threshold into the chapters that follow, envision yourself as a professional writer. What do professional writers look like? More importantly, how do they behave? As you read this textbook, embrace this opportunity of exploring your own world and the various worlds around you through writing. Your job in this class is to embrace the craft of writing, to take it seriously, and to learn strategies other successful writers have employed before you. Consider these examples:
Write in a journal. Obtain a small notebook, and write in it every day, or, alternatively, write on your laptop, or tablet, or even a small pad of paper you keep in your backpack. Pour ideas into it. You may at first start putting formless thoughts or feelings into this journal, or you might choose to focus on issues concerning you, such as observations (written sketches) about your community, friends, family, or work setting. These ideas may eventually provide the foundation for serious writing projects. Movies abound with images of writers, thinkers, or inventors scribbling onto scraps of paper, fearful of losing the momentary magic of their thoughts. As chaotic as this might seem, it is sound practice.
Schedule time to write. Make a point to schedule periods of time each day when you do nothing but write. It is important to practice your new craft every day. There is no such thing, after all, as the gifted savant who does not need to work hard at his profession. Do not attempt to be “the natural” who is not concerned with process, only the final product. Start with a structured journal-writing time. While you can jot down an idea that creeps unexpectedly upon you in your notepad, that moment cannot take the place of the time you need to develop it in a more disciplined way.
Find an appropriate place to write. At first, you might practice writing in different places and environments, and take note of how the place affects your productivity. Some writers must have complete silence when they write and retreat to the seclusion of their study. Others cannot stand complete silence, so they choose a place to write where they can listen to music. Still others need a sense of community and so go to libraries or coffee shops to write. Find the place most conducive to your own inner writer.
Be alert and interested. It is far too easy to become lost in your own mind, cycling over the week’s events or some random triviality. Flip the lens outward. Take pleasure in the larger world—whether through people-watching, direct interaction with others, or by simply keeping up to date on the news with what is happening locally and globally. It is hard to write when you are self-contained. Curiosity is a key ingredient of the best writing.
Turn off the perfectionist. Many writers never succeed at blossoming because their inner editor emerges to stifle creativity. The perfectionist is often never satisfied with what he sees on the page and, as a result, never develops it. If this textbook attempts to achieve one thing, it is to impress upon you the notion that communication, writing in particular, is a process of discovery and exploration. At times, as with all processes—such as baking a cake—it will be messy.
When you write, you subscribe to the idea that new knowledge can be created and that you can play a role in its discovery. More importantly, by writing you also suggest these ideas are worth sharing with the world, and through the power of language you may convey these ideas to others in unique and hitherto unimagined ways. Finally, through the act of writing you can transform yourself, expanding the possibilities of what you can become.
Why I Write
George Orwell (1903-1950) was the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair. He was born in British-controlled India and served as an imperial policeman in Burma between 1924 and 1927. After returning to England because of an illness, he decided to abandon his position and become a writer. He described his experiences in Burmese Days (1934) and the essay “Shooting an Elephant” (1936), which explains his growing disgust with the injustice of the British imperial system. He is known today for his novels and satires, primarily the political allegory Animal Farm (1945) and the dystopian novel 1984 (1949). He was also keenly aware of the connections between language manipulation and authoritarian rule, which he analyzed in his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946).
In this essay, Orwell explores his own urge to write, to put his experiences on paper and create meaning out of them. He discusses his early desire to be a writer and how he was influenced by the ambience of his age and position and the literature popular at the time. As he grew and developed, his purpose and audience changed, from his rather flippant satires as a student and his later desire to record the reality of his life to his growing concern with injustice and politics. He describes how he found his voice as a writer and why, while continuing to be concerned with language and the artistry of writing, he could not conceive of writing, at least in the time he lived, without a political purpose.
From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.
I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life. Nevertheless the volume of serious—i.e. seriously intended—writing which I produced all through my childhood and boyhood would not amount to half a dozen pages. I wrote my first poem at the age of four or five, my mother taking it down to dictation. I cannot remember anything about it except that it was about a tiger and the tiger had “chair-like teeth”—a good enough phrase, but I fancy the poem was a plagiarism of Blake’s “Tiger, Tiger.” At eleven, when the war of 1914-18 broke out, I wrote a patriotic poem which was printed in the local newspaper, as was another, two years later, on the death of Kitchener. From time to time, when I was a bit older, I wrote bad and usually unfinished “nature poems” in the Georgian style. I also, about twice, attempted a short story which was a ghastly failure. That was the total of the would-be serious work that I actually set down on paper during all those years.
However, throughout this time I did in a sense engage in literary activities. To begin with there was the made-to-order stuff which I produced quickly, easily and without much pleasure to myself. Apart from school work, I wrote vers d’occasion, semi-comic poems which I could turn out at what now seems to me astonishing speed—at fourteen I wrote a whole rhyming play, in imitation of Aristophanes, in about a week—and helped to edit school magazines, both printed and in manuscript. These magazines were the most pitiful burlesque stuff that you could imagine, and I took far less trouble with them than I now would with the cheapest journalism. But side by side with all this, for fifteen years or more, I was carrying out a literary exercise of a quite different kind: this was the making up of a continuous “story” about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind. I believe this is a common habit of children and adolescents. As a very small child I used to imagine that I was, say, Robin Hood, and picture myself as the hero of thrilling adventures, but quite soon my “story” ceased to be narcissistic in a crude way and became more and more a mere description of what I was doing and the things I saw. For minutes at a time this kind of thing would be running through my head: “He pushed the door open and entered the room. A yellow beam of sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains, slanted on to the table, where a match-box, half open, lay beside the inkpot. With his right hand in his pocket he moved across to the window. Down in the street a tortoiseshell cat was chasing a dead leaf,” etc. etc. This habit continued till I was about twenty-five, right through my non-literary years. Although I had to search, and did search, for the right words, I seemed to be making this descriptive effort almost against my will, under a kind of compulsion from outside. The “story” must, I suppose, have reflected the styles of the various writers I admired at different ages, but so far as I remember it always had the same meticulous descriptive quality.
When I was about sixteen I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words, i.e. the sounds and associations of words. The lines from Paradise Lost,
So hee with difficulty and labour hard
Moved on: with difficulty and labour hee.
which do not now seem to me so very wonderful, sent shivers down my backbone; and the spelling “hee” for “he” was an added pleasure. As for the need to describe things, I knew all about it already. So it is clear what kind of books I wanted to write, in so far as I could be said to want to write books at that time. I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which words were used partly for the sake of their sound. And in fact my first completed novel, Burmese Days, which I wrote when I was thirty but projected much earlier, is rather that kind of book.
I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in—at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own—but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, or in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write. Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:
- Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen—in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they abandon individual ambitions, in many cases, indeed, they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all—and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, witful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.
- Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.
- Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
- Political purpose. Using the word “political” in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time. By nature—taking your “nature” to be the state you have attained when you are first adult—I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer. First I spent five years in an unsuitable profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I underwent poverty and the sense of failure. This increased my natural hatred of authority and made me for the first time fully aware of the existence of the working classes, and the job in Burma had given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism: but these experiences were not enough to give me an accurate political orientation. Then came Hitler, the Spanish civil war, etc. By the end of 1935 I had still failed to reach a firm decision. I remember a little poem that I wrote at that date, expressing my dilemma:
A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago,
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow;
But born, alas, in an evil time,
I missed that pleasant haven,
For the hair has grown on my upper lip
And the clergy are all clean-shaven.
And later still the times were good,
We were so easy to please,
We rocked our troubled thoughts to sleep
On the bosoms of the trees.
All ignorant we dared to own
The joys we now dissemble;
The greenfinch on the apple bough
Could make my enemies tremble.
But girls’ bellies and apricots,
Roach in a shaded stream.
Horses, ducks in flight at dawn,
All these are a dream.
It is forbidden to dream again;
We maim our joys or hide them;
Horses are made of chromium steel
And little fat men shall ride them.
I am the worm who never turned,
The eunuch without a harem;
Between the priest and the commissar
I walk like Eugene Aram;
And the commissar is telling my fortune
While the radio plays,
But the priest has promised an Austin Seven,
For Duggie always pays.
I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls,
And woke to find it true;
I wasn’t born for an age like this;
Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?
The Spanish war and other events in 1936–37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.
What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.” I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and I do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.
It is not easy. It raises problems of construction and of language, and it raises in a new way the problem of truthfulness. Let me give just one example of the cruder kind of difficulty that arises. My book about the Spanish civil war, Homage to Catalonia, is, of course, a frankly political book, but in the main it is written with a certain detachment and regard for form. I did try very hard in it to tell the whole truth without violating my literary instincts. But among other things it contains a long chapter, full of newspaper quotations and the like, defending the Trotskyists who were accused of plotting with Franco. Clearly such a chapter, which after a year or two would lose its interest for any ordinary reader, must ruin the book. A critic whom I respect read me a lecture about it. “Why did you put in all that stuff?” he said. “You’ve turned what might have been a good book into journalism.” What he said was true, but I could not have done otherwise. I happened to know, what very few people in England have been allowed to know, that innocent men were being falsely accused. If I had not been angry about that I should never have written the book.
In one form or another this problem comes up again. The problem of language is subtler and would take too long to discuss. I will only say that of late years I have tried to write less picturesquely and more exactly. In any case I find that by the time you have perfected any style of writing, you have always outgrown it. Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole. I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write.
Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don’t want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.
Topics for Writing and Discussion
Orwell mentions writing as a child. Did you write as a child? Did you keep a diary or write poetry? Write a paragraph about what you remember about yourself as a child writer.
Orwell also mentions words and lines of verse that particularly caught his attention, such as the lines from 'Paradise Lost' that he quotes. What passages or lines of poetry have stuck with you from your earlier reading? Write down what you can remember, and then share and discuss with your group.
Orwell lists four reasons for writing. Can you think of any others? Notice he does not mention writing as a skill that will help one get a good job.
Near the end of his essay, Orwell says, “And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.” Can you explain what he means here? If one gets rid of one’s personality, does that not get rid of one’s voice? Have you not been told in the past that writing is a vehicle for personal expression? Discuss with your group or the class, and come up with another metaphor for windowpane: “Good prose is like a _______ .”