Robert Graves, 1895-1985
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: After his service in the war, Graves attended Oxford University, where he became friends with Col. T. E. Lawrence (“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 most effect on me. Originally published on 1941, it is a wonderful book to study if you are interested in writing clearly. [At the link are used copies; I recommend getting an older copy: in the American editions, some omitted almost all the analyzed passages. The exercise download at the end includes all passages that Graves and Hodge included.- LG]
Here are the chapters:
- The Peculiar Qualities of English
- The Present Confusion of English Prose
- Where is Good English to be Found?
- The Use and Abuse of Official English
- The Beginnings of English Prose
- The Ornate and Plain Styles
- Classical Prose
- Romantic Prose
- Recent Prose
- The Principles of Clear Statement (three chapters)
- The Graces of Prose
Chapters 5-9 consitute a succinct history of English prose style, with many passages quoted 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 the passage thus is made unclear. The same procedure is followed with the graces of prose, though a violation of those produces an awkward rather than obscure passage.
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:
- The original text, with superscripts denoting unclear statements
- The examination: explaining specific violations of the principles of clear statement
- The fair copy (rewriting to remove the violations)
- Finally, a comment by Graves and Hodge
The authors include Clive Bell, Daphne Du Maurier, Sir Arthur Eddington, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Heminway, Aldous Huxley, Cecil Day Lewis, J.B. Priestly, I.A. Richards, Bertrand Russell, G.B. Shaw, Stephen Spender, and H.G. Wells.
I reproduced the passages without the superscripts. These then serve for study: using a list of the principles of clear statement, you 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 are probably better writers than you, and they spent more time in analyzing the passage. Your work on the passage was to prepare your mind, as the farmer plows the ground in spring, to receive the seeds of understanding: once you’ve actually labored over the passage, you can truly understand and appreciate and grasp what Graves and Hodge have to say. Had you not done that work, your eye and mind would have simply skimmed over their comments while you murmured, “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.
One general warning about writing: never try to edit as you write—that will induce writer’s block. Write with your internal editor disengaged, and use the editing skills only later, as you rewrite. Peter Elbow has some excellent advice on this point in his wonderful book Writing Without Teachers.
Here you can download the 54 passages in a format suitable for study. (PDF file) Enjoy. And let me know how it works for you.
Minor addition: Also note this dictum.