April 4, 2017 @ 4:25 AM

Seven sensible steps to success as a writer

#22 Step 3 (continued): Voices from the past...

Not long ago a friend sent a favourite passage from Charles Dickens' "Barnaby Rudge", which observes how human passions so often reflect the wildness of nature ... 'man, lashed into madness with the roaring winds and boiling waters...'

The paragraph is a lengthy one, with many subordinate clauses and heightened language – typical of Romantic 'sturm und drang', though writers and artists of every period have drawn on the metaphor. And I spent an instructive hour or two thinking how I might approach the same passage were I writing it for myself.

It's a useful exercise for a number of reasons. It reinforces how the written word, and the conventions of punctuation and grammar have changed over time.

Enforcers of ‘a zero tolerance approach’ are to be avoided. Even the function of literature has shifted somewhat in contemporary society.

In centuries past the novel had a popular place in people's lives now largely occupied by film, television and all the digital pastimes we carry about with us.


Hence the long, serialised stories of Dickens and Co, with their dramatic descriptions, florid imagery, melodrama and moralising interludes were often read aloud in the family living room and even theatres.

Today, we can access such entertainment merely by pressing a button. Think of almost any sit. com. or TV 'reality' show.

Which is not to deny the continuing significance of 'story' for today's audience. It's the manner of their telling that's changed quite significanty.

And of course there is also a question of time and competing demands for our attention.

In the modern age we tend to use shorter sentences and simpler language. As a young journalist I was always taught to write as if for a literate 12-year-old (I've since bumped it up a few years); and whenever I wanted to put a comma I was told to put a full stop.

I've followed the latter advice reasonably well – though, like every art, successful writing needs variation. For punctuation can also act like the expression marks on a page of music to indicate a pause in the reading, or to stress a phrase.

Thus after several short sentences I'll often write a long one using commas, semi-colons and en dashes to separate the clauses: even the three points of an ellipsis if I want to create a sense of an incomplete thought or action...

Next time: Using your own voice.

Photo: Charles Dickens at his desk, Wikimedia Commons.