Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Robert Graves (1895-1985) and how I learned to write

with 4 comments

Robert Graves is worth remembering today, Armistice Day once, Veterans Day now, because of his service in the Great War and the memoir he wrote afterwards, Goodbye to All That. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend that you do.

One of my favorite anecdotes in the book: After his service in the war, Graves attended Oxford University, where he became friends with Col. T. E. Lawrence (better known as “Lawrence of Arabia”). Graves tells this story:

Professor Edgeworth, of All Souls’, avoided conversational English, persistently using words and phrases that one expects to meet only in books. One evening, Lawrence returned from a visit to London, and Edgeworth met him at the gate. ‘Was it very caliginous in the metropolis?’

‘Somewhat caliginous, but not altogether inspissated,’ Lawrence replied gravely.

Graves wrote much, and is today perhaps best known for his two novels about the emperor Claudius, I, Claudius and Claudius the God and his Wife Messalina. These were the basis for the TV series I, Claudius. But his novels in general are enjoyable. Some of my favorites are King Jesus, Count Belisarius, Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, and Homer’s Daughter. Your library is apt to have a good collection of Robert Graves’s novels.

But the book he wrote with Alan Hodge, The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose, had the greatest impact on me. Originally published on 1941, it is a wonderful book to study if you are interested in writing clearly. [At the link you will find secondhand copies; I recommend getting an older edition: some American editions omit almost all the analyzed passages. The PDF file you can download at the end of the post includes all the passages analyzed in the original edition.- LG]

Here are the book’s chapters:

  1. The Peculiar Qualities of English
  2. The Present Confusion of English Prose
  3. Where is Good English to be Found?
  4. The Use and Abuse of Official English
  5. The Beginnings of English Prose
  6. The Ornate and Plain Styles
  7. Classical Prose
  8. Romantic Prose
  9. Recent Prose
  10. The Principles of Clear Statement (three chapters)
  11. The Graces of Prose

Chapters 5-9 constitute a succinct history of English prose style, with many passages quoted at some length to show how prose style evolved. Those chapters alone are worth the price of the book.

In the chapters on the principles of clear statement, the principle is stated and then followed by examples (from published writing) of passages that violate the principle, demonstrating how as a result the passage is unclear. The same procedure is followed with the graces of prose, though a violation of those produces a passage that is awkward rather than obscure.

All of the above comprise less than half the book. The remainder of the book is given over to examples: passages selected because they were confusing or unclear. The authors then use those passages as examples and analyze them minutely. Each of the 54 passages gets this treatment:

  1. The original text, with superscripts denoting unclear statements
  2. The examination: explaining specific violations of the principles of clear statement
  3. The fair copy (the passage rewritten to remove the violations)
  4. Finally, a comment by Graves and Hodge

The authors include Clive Bell, Daphne Du Maurier, Sir Arthur Eddington, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley, C. Day Lewis, J.B. Priestly, I.A. Richards, Bertrand Russell, G.B. Shaw, Stephen Spender, and H.G. Wells, among others.

The PDF at the end of this post contains the text of the passages without the superscripts. These are intended to serve for study: using a list of the principles of clear statement, attempt to find all the errors in the passage. Spend at least half an hour in the error hunt, checking off the violated principles, and then write the passage as it might properly have been done.

Only then read what Graves and Hodge found wrong with the passage.

Don’t expect that you will find all the errors that they did—they probably are better writers than you, and they spent more time in analyzing the passage. Your work on the passage is to prepare your mind (much as the farmer plows the ground in spring) to receive the seeds of understanding. Once you’ve actually labored over a passage, you will truly understand and appreciate and grasp what Graves and Hodge have to say about it. If you don’t do that work on your own, your eye and mind will simply skim over their comments while you murmur, “Yes, of course,” learning nothing.

By the time you’ve done this exercise for all 54 passages, you will have become the reader over your shoulder, able to look at what you’ve written and see where it can be improved. You will be able to see how a reader who lacks the context of your intentions and your knowledge of what you meant to say will read what you wrote. (It helps, of course, if you put aside what you wrote for a day or two — or even a week — and then read it. The passage of some time helps you view your writing from a beneficial distance.)

Rather than marathon sessions to work through the 54 passages, I suggest doing one passage a day, thus providing continuing instruction over a couple of months, which allows you to integrate and assimilate the lessons you learn through the exercise.

Slow and steady works best. You are training a neural net — your brain — to recognize new patterns, and that takes time. It happens at the speed of growth, not the speed of insight. By the end of the 54 days, you will have developed new skills and new habits that will serve you well in your future writing.

One general warning about writing: never try to edit as you write. Doing that will induce writer’s block. Write with your internal editor disengaged, and use your editing skills only later, when you revise and rewrite. Peter Elbow has some excellent advice on this point in his wonderful book Writing Without Teachers.

Minor addition: Also note this dictum.

Written by Leisureguy

11 November 2006 at 8:59 am

Posted in Books, Military, Writing

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. As you say, “Goodbye to All That” is worth reading. Graves served in the trenches for almost the entire war and his memoir definitely communicates the horror of it (though not without moments of levity).

    One thing I found amusing was how prissy the young Graves was… he would get quite upset when the fellows in the trenches would start talking about sex. Can you imagine having to hunker down between walls of mud keeping an eye out not only for shells and mustard gas, but also Robert Graves if you were about to talk about women.

    Liked by 1 person


    11 November 2006 at 11:31 am

  2. Wandered over from Mefi Projects. “Goodbye to All That” is a great read. I recommend it all the time. I’m going to have to check out this writer’s guide! Thanks for posting it.



    25 November 2006 at 8:25 am

  3. The Reader Over Your Shoulder is a great read, even if you don’t do the workbook thing. And check out his other novels—wonderful stuff.

    I came across this passage in The Long Weekend, and it seems to me that Graves was talking in part about himself.



    25 November 2006 at 8:32 am

  4. Looking forward to delving into The Reader Over Your Shoulder. Peter Elbow’s idea of separating internal Editor from Writer, and letting each do his job unencumbered by the other, has been one of the most important pieces of advice I’ve ever read.



    7 January 2012 at 11:21 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: