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Introductory: Principles of Composition.
We shall now enter a field of composition in which writers are too often expected to begin without any preparation such as we have endeavored to obtain. New faculties will be taxed and new powers called into play. Experience and observation are by no means to be set aside, but they are to be supplemented by wider reading and particularly by reflection and independent thought. The material that we have been gathering all along will not be ignored; we shall merely make a different use of it.
We have been recording and chronicling and picturing; storing facts in places accessible to all ; fixing permanently the fleeting acts and feelings of the moment; reproducing beautiful forms and colors for future contemplation. Now we must organize these facts, discover the relations they bear to one another, and draw from them, if may be, broader facts which lie beyond the range of ordinary observation; we must transform the material lines and colors into emblems of spiritual beauty, and weave the threads of experience into a philosophy of life. Thus will literature subserve its highest ends.
Of the methods of finding material we spoke in the introduction to Part I. In the meantime we have gone ahead and worked that material into compositions as best we could. In regard to methods for the latter process some suggestions have been made, but much remains to be said, and perhaps the best place to say it once for all is here.
As to mere mechanical execution, the writing of sentences on paper, let the printed page be your guide. You may not be able to equal, in writing, the neatness and precision of print, but by giving careful attention to margins, spacing, capitalization, punctuation, indentation for paragraphs, etc., you can approach them. The advantages of mechanical neatness and accuracy that make them worth striving for are so manifest that they do not need to be pointed out. Perhaps, too, these habits cultivated in mechanical matters will react upon thought and expression themselves, tending toward increased clearness and orderliness.
Now as to the best expression of thought, the best way of putting into words what we think — that is to say, the best literary style — how shall it be attained ? In answer we can only go back to the fundamental principles of rhetorical science and say that the chief aims of every writer should be, in the order of their usual importance, clearness, force, and beauty ; and that these must be sought through unremitting attention to the mediums of expression — words, sentences, paragraphs, and whole compositions.
First of all, do not exaggerate to yourself the diffi. culty of writing. You can talk fluently enough by the hour; why should you not write as fluently? Be simple and natural, correcting errors when the committing of thought to writing discloses them, making improvement wherever reflection shows that improvement is possible. In time no doubt the habit of writing with forethought and afterthought, of searching for more appropriate words and more effective forms, will develop a literary style considerably above the plane of your ordinary conversational style. But do not make the mistake of thinking that you must begin with this. It is not even necessary, for eminence in the field of letters, that you should ever reach it, and often the best means of reaching it is through simplicity. Mark how simply Washington Irving writes, or Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography, or Sir Charles Darwin in his Letters. And yet the writings of these men possess literary merit of a very high order.
Endeavor to use only such words as shall be intelligible and inoffensive to all. Obsolete words, words that are gradually dropping out of use, and words that are just coming into use, should be employed, if at all, with a full recognition of the risk incurred : the time may come when their presence will render the composition worthless. Words from a foreign language that have not become naturalized are generally unnecessary and are best avoided. They throw the user under the suspicion of pedantry. Provincialisms, or words whose use is limited to certain localities, and peculiarities of dialect (except in “dialect pieces”) should likewise be eschewed. Slang is of course inadmissible. Between a long and a short word, other things being equal, the principle of economy would suggest the choice of the short one.
Between Latin and Saxon derivatives there is perhaps no fixed consideration to govern our choice ; the peculiar virtues of the Saxon word are admitted, but they have probably been overpraised. A specific