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Give an account now of a contest of a somewhat different kind — one involving the exhibition, not of physical prowess, but rather of intellectual ability and attainments. Perhaps spelling and pronouncing matches, being of common occurrence, will most readily suggest themselves. Joint meetings of literary societies, debates, suits and trials at law, and contests in declamation and oratory, if you have an opportunity of hearing them, will afford yet wider scope for an exercise of this nature. Read The Debate in Will Carleton's Farm Festivals.
OUTLINE AUTOBIOGRAPHY. The length of the composition to be written must be determined by various considerations, chiefly by the subject itself and the writer's knowledge of it. In general, write all that seems worthy of being said upon the subject, neither more nor less. It is sometimes necessary for a writer, as in the preparation of lectures, magazine articles, and newspaper reports, to fix his limits exactly beforehand. But that can be done successfully only when by long training one has obtained perfect control over his pen. In order therefore to obtain this control it may be well occasionally to practice writing compositions of a definite length. In every case the qualities to be sought for are unity, symmetry,
felt that every
compactness, and completeness. Mere length is in itself no indication whatever of merit, nor even of the amount of time or labor spent on the work. A student once presented an essay of only four sentences, which in all the qualities above named was excelled by no one of a hundred other essays presented at the same time. It possessed in a rare degree that almost indefinable virtue, literary finish.
When you read it you felt that thing had been said and had been said in the best possible
One word more or one word less would have spoiled it.
Naturally one whose aim is excellence only does not want to be hampered by any conditions in the matter of length. It is possible to expand or condense a written article within certain limits without serious harm ; but the limits are very narrow.
Of the two processes expansion is the more hazardous. Indeed, so far as mere use of words goes, writers of every grade err ten times on the side of excess to once on the side of deficiency. So true is this that we have several familiar names by which to characterize different forms of the first vice — inflation, circumlocution, redundance, tautology, prolixity, diffuseness — but scarcely one for the second - rhetorical ellipsis. Condensation, “ boiling down," is therefore recommended to young writers as a valuable practice. So long as the process is applied to the diction or wording of any thought there can be little question of its value. A review of what we have written will almost always show to us some expressions that add too little to warrant their retention, and some that are mere repetitions and add nothing at all. And sometimes the thought itself may be pruned to advantage. On the other hand, if expansion is necessary, it must always be effected by the addition of thought, of subject-matter, not by juggling with words.
Write a brief history of your life. There are a few facts that are necessary to every work of this kind, no matter how brief or incomplete it may be. In addition to these, relate the most important events and especially those events which, whether they appeared important or not at the time of their occurrence, gained significance by their effect upon your subsequent life. Such an essay is not likely to have complete unity, since it will be made up largely of diverse and unrelated experiences — experiences that have fallen to the lot of a single individual, it is true, but quite as often by chance as by design. Still a certain unity will be secured if you continually bear in mind that all these experiences have contributed to make you what you
The opening chapter of Robinson Crusoe furnishes an excellent example of such a sketch of one's early life. Observe how it gives, in addition to those facts which are patent to every one, considerable insight into young Robinson's character and proclivities, which is not only interesting but really essential. Read also The Author's Account of Himself, in Washington Irving's Sketch-Book.
Instead of trying to cover your whole life-history, take a small portion of it only and treat it more in detail, as if you were writing a chapter of a complete formal autobiography. You will thus have time and space to make note of minuter incidents, to inquire, if you choose, into the motives of actions, to indicate personal tastes and follow the development of particular traits of character. Perhaps some of this could be better done by another than by yourself, still there is no reason why you should not attempt it. Try to be fair to yourself, erring if at all on the side of modesty. So far as may be, let motives shine through your actions rather than rest on your bare assertion. You will be more likely thus to win the reader's confidence and impress him with your sincerity.
The familiar Autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin, John B. Gough, Joseph Jefferson, etc., may be referred to as models.
There is a subject that has long been a favorite with young composition-writers — “ The Autobiography of a Cent.” It is an easy subject for several reasons. Being largely if not entirely fictitious it does not require any preliminary investigation into facts. It affords ample scope for the imagination, and yet in a wholly familiar field-everyday life. The use of the first person too instead of the third, seems to lead to the most natural and easy style of writing. If the title were changed to “ The History of a Cent,” and the third person used, the narrative would be likely to lose,
not only in simplicity, but also in liveliness and interest.
Select such an “autobiography” and write it in your best imaginative style. By imaginative is not meant anything strained or artificial.
On the contrary, the best imaginative writer in this case will be he who best succeeds in identifying himself with the object in question. Imagine yourself to be that object, as vividly as you can, and then, with all the feeling and naturalness possible to you, tell your story.
Of course many things may be substituted for the word cent in the above title-pin, ribbon, pen-knife, horse-shoe, postage-stamp. A description of the manufacture of these articles will not properly enter into a narration ; rather dwell upon the wanderings of the object, the various uses it has subserved, the vicissitudes of fortune it has witnessed and suffered in short, all its experiences and observations in the world of men and things. One of the most successful essays of this nature that has come under the writer's observation was entitled “ A Voice from the Belfry.” The schoolbell did all the talking, and the school-bell you must admit is in an admirable position to observe certain interesting phases of human life.
There is no need to confine yourself to inanimate objects. The autobiography of a squirrel or a dog or horse may be made perhaps more interesting than any of the above. Somewhat in this style is a well written plea for the horse, entitled Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell. If you prefer, instead of writing a composition of your own, take A Bell's Biography, in Hawthorne’s Snow Image, and Other Twice Told Tales, and