Harper Lee Gives Advice to Young Writers in One of Her Only Interviews Captured on Audio (1964)

You know the character Boo Radley? Well, if you know Boo, then you understand why I wouldn’t be doing an interview. Because I am really Boo. 

— Harper Lee, in a private conversation with Oprah Winfrey

Author Harper Lee loved writing but resisted interviews, granting just a handful in the fifty-six years that followed the publication of her Pulitzer Prize winning 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird

Go Set a Watchmanher second, and final, novel began as an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, and was published in 2015, a year before her death.

Roy Newquist, interviewing Lee in 1964 for WQXR’s Counterpointaboveprobably expected the hotshot young novelist had many more books in her when he solicited her advice for “the talented youngster who wants to carve a career as a creative writer.”

Presumably Lee did too. “I hope to goodness that every novel I do gets better and better, not worse and worse,” she remarked toward the end of the interview.

She obliged Newquist by offering some advice, but stopped short of offering career tips to those eager for the lowdown on how to write an instant bestseller that will be adapted for stage and screen, earn a perennial spot in middle school curriculums, and — just last week — be crowned the Best Book of the Past 125 Years in a New York Times readers’ poll, beating out titles by well regarded, and vastly more prolific authors on the order of J.R.R. Tolkien, George Orwell, Gabriel García Márquez, and Toni Morrison.

“People who write for reward by way of recognition or monetary gain don’t know what they’re doing. They’re in the category of those who write; they are not writers,” she drawled.

Harper Lee’s Advice to Young Writers

  • Hope for the best and expect nothing in terms of recognition
  • Write to please an audience of one: yourself
  • Write to exorcise your divine discontent
  • Gather material from the world around you, then turn inward and reflect
  • Don’t major in writing

Listening to the recording, it occurs to us that this interview contains some more advice for young writers, or rather, those bringing up children in the digital age.

When Newquist wonders why it is that “such a disproportionate share of our sensitive and enduring fiction springs from writers born and reared in the South,” Lee, a native of Monroeville, Alabama, makes a strong case for cultivating an environment wherein children have no choice but to make their own fun:

I think … the absence of things to do and see and places to go means a great deal to our own private communication. We can’t go to see a play; we can’t go to see a big league baseball game when we want to. We entertain ourselves.

This was my childhood: If I went to a film once a month it was pretty good for me, and for all children like me. We had to use our own devices in our play, for our entertainment. We didn’t have much money. Nobody had any money. We didn’t have toys, nothing was done for us, so the result was that we lived in our imagination most of the time. We devised things; we were readers, and we would transfer everything we had seen on the printed page to the backyard in the form of high drama.

Did you never play Tarzan when you were a child? Did you never tramp through the jungle or refight the battle of Gettysburg in some form or fashion? We did. Did you never live in a tree house and find the whole world in the branches of a chinaberry tree? We did.

I think that kind of life naturally produces more writers than, say, an environment like 82nd Street in New York.

Hear that, parents and teachers of young writers?

  • Nurture the creative spirit by regularly prying the digital device’s from young writers’ hands (and minds.)

Bite your tongue if, thus deprived, they trot off to the theater, the multiplex, or the sports stadium. Remember that iPhones hadn’t been invented when Lee was stumping for the tonic effects of her chinaberry tree. These days, any unplugged real world experience will be to the good.

If the young writers complain — and they surely will — subject yourself to the same terms.

Call it solidarity, self-care, or a way of upholding your New Year’s resolution…

Read an account of another Harper Lee interview, during her one day visit to Chicago to promote the 1962 film of To Kill a Mockingbird and attend a literary tea in her honor, here.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Nick Cave’s Online Store: Pencils Adorned with Lyrics, Mugs, Polaroids & More

I’m sitting on the balcony
Reading Flannery O’Connor
With a pencil and a plan

– Nick Cave, Carnage

Access to technology has transformed the creative process, and many artists who’ve come to depend on it have long ceased to marvel at the labor and time saved, seething with resentment when devices and digital access fails.

Musician Nick Cave, founder and frontman of The Bad Seeds, is one who hasn’t abandoned his analog ways, whether he’s in the act of generating new songs, or seeking respite from the same.

“There has always been a strong, even obsessive, visual component to the (songwriting) process,” he writes, “a compulsive rendering of the lyric as a thing to be seen, to be touched, to be examined:”

I have always done this—basically drawn my songs—for as long as I’ve been writing them…when the pressure of song writing gets too much, well, I draw a cute animal or a naked woman or a religious icon or a mythological creature or something. Or I take a Polaroid or make something out of clay. I do a collage, or write a child’s poem and date stamp and sticker it, or do some granny-art with a set of watercolour paints. 

Last year, these extra creative labors became fruits in their own right, with the opening of Cave Things, an online shop well stocked with quirky objects “conceived, sourced, shaped, and designed” by the musician.

These include such longtime fascinations as prayer cards, picture discs, and Polaroids, and a series of enameled charms and ceramic figures that evoke Victorian Staffordshire “flatbacks.”

T-shirts, guitar picks and egg cups may come graced with doodles of frequent collaborator Warren Ellis‘ bearded mug, or the aforementioned naked women, which Cage describes to Interview’s Ben Barna as “a compulsive habit I have had since my school days”:

They have no artistic merit. Rather, they are evidence of a kind of ritualistic and habitual thinking, not dissimilar to the act of writing itself, actually.

Of all of Cave’s Cave Things, the ones with the broadest appeal may be the pencil sets personalized with thematic snippets of his lyrics.

White god pencils quote from “Into My Arms,” “Idiot Prayer,” “Mermaids,”  and “Hand of God.”

A red devil pencil bearing lines from “Brompton Oratory” slips a bit of god into the mix, as well as a reference to the sea, a frequent Cave motif.

Madness and war pencils are counterbalanced by pencils celebrating love and flowers.

The pencils are Vikings, a classic Danish brand well known to pencil nerds, hard and black on the graphite scale.

Put them all in a cup and draw one out at random, or let your mood or feelings about what said pencil will be writing or drawing determine your pick.

Meanwhile Cave’s implements of choice may surprise you. As he told NME’s Will Richards last December:

My process of lyric writing is as follows: For months, I write down ideas in a notebook with a Bic medium ballpoint pen in black. At some point, the songs begin to reveal themselves, to take some kind of form, which is when I type the new lyrics into my laptop. Here, I begin the long process of working on the words, adding verses, taking them away, and refining the language, until the song arrives at its destination. At this stage, I take one of the yellowing back pages I have cut from old second-hand books, and, on my Olympia typewriter, type out the lyrics. I then glue it into my bespoke notebook, number it, date-stamp it, and sticker it. The song is then ‘officially’ completed.

Hmm. No pencils, though there’s a reference to a blind pencil seller in Cave’s contribution to the soundtrack of Wim Wenders’ science fiction epic Until the End of the World.

Two more lyrics about pencils and he’ll have enough to put a Pencil Pencils set up on Cave Things!

Follow Cave Things on Instagram to keep tabs on new pencil drops.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Albert Camus on the Responsibility of the Artist: To “Create Dangerously” (1957)

Literary statements about the nature and purpose of art constitute a genre unto themselves, the ars poetica, an antique form going back at least as far as Roman poet Horace. The 19th century poles of the debate are sometimes represented by the dueling notions of Percy Shelley — who claimed that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” — and Oscar Wilde, who famously proclaimed, “all art is quite useless.” These two statements conveniently describe a conflict between art that involves itself in the struggles of the world, and art that is involved only with itself.

In the mid-twentieth century, Albert Camus put the question somewhat differently in a 1957 speech entitled “Create Dangerously.”

Of what could art speak, indeed? If it adapts itself to what the majority of our society wants, art will be a meaningless recreation. If it blindly rejects that society, if the artist makes up his mind to take refuge in his dream, art will express nothing but a negation.

And yet, grandiose ideas about the artist’s role seemed absurd in the mid-twentieth century, when the question becomes whether artists should exist at all. “Such amazing optimism seems dead today,” writes Camus. “In most cases the artist is ashamed of himself and his privileges, if he has any. He must first of all answer the question he has put to himself: is art a deceptive luxury?”

Women artists have also had to consider the question, of course. Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova quotes Audre Lorde’s call for artists to “uphold their responsibility toward ‘the transformation of silence into language and action.” Ursula Le Guin believed that art expanded the imagination, and thus the possibilities for human freedom. Both of these writers were politically engaged artists, and so it’s little wonder that we find similar sentiments in Camus’ speech from decades earlier.

To make art, Camus writes, is to make choices. Artists are already involved, as Shelley declared, in shaping the world around them, whether they acknowledge it or not:

Reality cannot be reproduced without exercising a selection… The only thing needed, then, is to find a principle of choice that will give shape to the world. And such a principle is found, not in the reality we know, but in the reality that will be — in short, the future. In order to reproduce properly what is, one must depict also what will be.

The most eloquent, enduring expressions of future thinking are that which we call art. Even art that seeks to depict the fleetingness of nature freezes itself for posterity.

Art, in a sense, is a revolt against everything fleeting and unfinished in the world. Consequently, its only aim is to give another form to a reality that it is nevertheless forced to preserve as the source of its emotion. In this regard, we are all realistic and no one is. Art is neither complete rejection nor complete acceptance of what is. It is simultaneously rejection and acceptance, and this is why it must be a perpetually renewed wrenching apart. 

To understand art as purposelessly divorced from the world is to misunderstand it, Camus argues. This is the misunderstanding of “a fashionable society in which all troubles [are] money troubles and all worries [are] sentimental worries” — the self-satisfied bourgeois society “about which Oscar Wilde, thinking of himself before he knew prison, said that the greatest of all vices was superficiality.”

Art for art’s sake is the doctrine of a “society of merchants… the artificial art of a factitious and self-absorbed society,” Camus declared. “The logical result of such a theory is the art of little cliques.” Or, to a degree Camus could not have imagined, we have the entertainment industrial complex of art for commerce’s sake, which in the 21st century can make it nearly impossible for art to thrive. (As actor Stellan Skarsgård recently said in public comments, the problem with the film industry is “that we have for decades believed that the market should rule everything.”)

Therefore, the question before Camus, and no less before artists today, is how to “create dangerously” in a society “that forgives nothing.” The question of whether or not art serves a purpose is a false one, he suggests, since “every publication is a deliberate act,” and therefore purposeful. The real question, for Camus the philosopher, “is simply to know — given the strict controls of countless ideologies (so many cults, such solitude!) — how the enigmatic freedom of creation remains possible.” If only arriving at such knowledge were so simple. Camus’ lecture has recently been translated by Sandra Smith and published in the short volume, Create Dangerously: The Power and Responsibility of the Artist. You can read a section of the lecture at Lithub.

Camus’ speech was presented on December 14, 1957 at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, shortly after he won the Nobel Prize.

via Brain Pickings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Good with Words: A Series of Writing & Editing Courses from the University of Michigan

We’ve all used words just about as long as we’ve been alive. This obvious truth, alas, has led too many of us into the delusion that we’re good with words: that we’re good speakers and, even more commonly and less justifiably, that we’re good writers. Yet anyone who’s seen or heard much of how words are used in the realms of business and academia — to say nothing of personal correspondence — does understand, on some level, the true rarity of these skills. Now, those of us who recognize the need to shore up our own skills can do so through Good with Words, a specialization in writing and editing now offered by the University of Michigan through online education platform Coursera.

Good with Words comprises individual courses on word choice and word order, structure and organization, drafting, and revising. Here to teach them is Michigan Law School Clinical Assistant Professor of Law Patrick Barry, of whose lecturing style you can get a taste in this Youtube playlist collecting clips of a writing workshop held for Michigan Law students in 2014. In the clip above, he takes on the common problem of verbal clutter, working from the definition originally laid out by On Writing Well author William Zinsser (whose ten writing tips we previously featured here on Open Culture). In other brief views, Barry touches on everything from the power of description and sentence flow to facts versus truths and zombie nouns.

In one workshop clip, Barry reminds his students that, in order to write good sentences, they must read good sentences. This point bears repeating, and indeed Barry repeats it in his Coursera course, the relevant excerpt of which you can view here. “A young writer must read,” he quotes Colum McCann declaring in the book Letters to a Young Writer. “She must read and read and read. Adventurously. Promiscuously. Unfailingly.” But taking a course as well couldn’t hurt, especially when, as with Good with Words, it can be audited for free. (Coursera also offers a paid option for students who would like to receive a certificate upon completing the specialization.) Barry offers plenty of example sentences, good and less so, but the true writers among us will never stop looking for their own, even after Good with Words‘ suggested four-month duration is over.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Animated History of Writing: From Ancient Egypt to Modern Writing Systems

He would be a very simple person, and quite a stranger to the oracles of Thamus or Ammon, who should leave in writing or receive in writing any art under the idea that the written word would be intelligible or certain. — Socrates

The transmission of truth was at one time a face-to-face business that took place directly between teacher and student. We find ancient sages around the world who discouraged writing and privileged spoken dialogue as the best way to communicate. Why is that? Socrates himself explained it in Plato’s Phaedrus, with a myth about the origin of writing. In his story, the Egyptian god Thoth devises the various means of communication by signs and presents them to the Egyptian god-king Thamus, also known as Ammon. Thamus examines them, praising or disparaging each in turn. When he gets to writing, he is especially put out.

“O most ingenious Theuth,” says Thamus (in Benjamin Jowett’s translation), “you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth.”

Other technologies of communication like Incan khipu have the quality of “embeddedness,” says YouTuber NativeLang above, in an animated history of writing that begins with the myth of “Thoth’s Pill.” That is to say, such forms are inseparable from the material context of their origins. Writing is unique, fungible, alienable, and alienating. Its greatest strength — the ability to communicate across distances of time and space — is also its weakness since it separates us from each other, requiring us to memorize complex systems of signs and interpret an author’s meaning in their absence. Socrates criticizes writing because “it will de-embed you.”

The irony of Socrates’ critique (via Plato) is that “it comes to us via text,” notes Bear Skin Digital. “We enjoy it and think about it purely because it is recorded in writing.” What’s more, as Phaedrus says in response, Socrates’ story is only a story. “You can easily invent tales of Egypt, or of any other country.” To which Socrates replies that a truth is a truth, no matter who says it, or how we happen to hear it. Is it so with writing? Does its ambiguity render it useless? Are written works like orphans, as Socrates characterizes them? “If they are maltreated or abused, they have no parents to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves….”

It’s a little too late to decide if we’re better off without the written word, so many millennia after writing grew out of pictographs, or “proto-writing” and into ideographs, logographs, rebuses, phonetic alphabets, and more. Watch the full animated history of writing above and, then, by all means, close your browser and go have a long conversation with someone face-to-face.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hunter Thompson Explains What Gonzo Journalism Is, and How He Writes It (1975)

There’ve been any number of aspiring “gonzo journalists” over the past half-century, but there was only one Hunter S. Thompson. Having originated with his work in the early 1970s, this sense of gonzo made it into the Random House Dictionary within his lifetime. “Filled with bizarre or subjective ideas, commentary, or the like,” says its first definitions. And its second: “Crazy; eccentric.” Thompson seems to have approved, seeing as he kept a copy of this very edition, put on display at the Owl Farm Private Museum (run by the Gonzo Foundation) after his death in 2005. Thirty years earlier, he had the question put to him in the interview above: “What is gonzo journalism?”

“That word has really plagued me,” Thompson says. But he also credits it with putting distance between himself and the recently ascendant “New Journalists” like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Joan Didion: “I wasn’t sure I was doing that, but I was sure I wasn’t doing what we call straight journalism.” Indeed, few pieces could have seemed less “straight” than “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” first published in Scanlan’s Monthly in 1970. Assembled in desperation out of pages pulled straight from Thompson’s notebook and illustrated by Ralph Steadman (the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration), the piece struck some readers as a revelation. A friend of Thompson’s declared it “pure gonzo” — an unconventional name for an unconventional form.

“Christ,” Thompson remembers thinking, “if I made a breakthrough, we’ve got to call it something.” Why not use a label with at least one instance of precedent? (It also appealed, he admits, to his inner “word freak.”) As for the substance of gonzo, he attributes to it “a mixture of humor and a high, stomping style, a bit more active than your normal journalism” — as well as whatever gets him past his innate hatred of writing. “All I can really get off on,” he says, is “when I can let my mind run. I start to laugh. I understand that Dickens used to laugh at his typewriter. I don’t laugh at my typewriter until I hit one of those what I consider pure gonzo breakthroughs. Then it’s worth it.”

Published three years earlier, Thompson’s best-known book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas marked the culmination of a particular writing project: “to eliminate the steps, or the blocks, between the writer and the page. That’s why I always get the fastest and newest typewriter. If they make one that costs twelve million dollars, I’ll write a bad check and get it for a while.” Regulating this signature gonzo directness is a rigorous stylistic discipline. “That’s the one book of mine that I’ve even read,” Thompson says, thanks to the “four or five rewrites” he performed on the manuscript. “There’s not a word in there — I mean, there might be fifteen or twenty, but that’s about all — that don’t have to be there.”

Interviewing Thompson is veteran journalist Harrison Salisbury, the New York Times‘ Moscow bureau chief in the 1940s and 50s. He also wrote many books including The Shook-Up Generation, a 1958 study of juvenile delinquency (and a volume found in Marilyn Monroe’s personal library) that could have primed his interest in Thompson’s debut Hell’s Angels when it came out a decade later. Appear though he may to be the kind of establishment figure who’d have little enthusiasm for gonzo journalism, Salisbury’s questions suggest a thorough knowledge and understanding of Thompson’s work, right down to the “tension” that drives it. “It could be drug-induced, or adrenaline-induced, or time-induced,” Thompson says of that tension. “I’ve been told by at least one or two confident specialists that the kind of tension I maintain cannot be done for any length of time without… I’ll either melt or explode, one of the two.”

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Haruki Murakami’s Daily Routine: Up at 4:00 a.m., 5-6 Hours of Writing, Then a 10K Run

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Haruki Murakami has been famous as a novelist since the 1980s. But for a decade or two now, he’s become increasingly well known around the world as a novelist who runs. The English-speaking world’s awareness of Murakami’s roadwork habit goes back at least as far as 2004, when the Paris Review published an Art of Fiction interview with him. Asked by interviewer John Ray to describe the structure of his typical workday, Murakami replied as follows:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

This stark physical departure from the popular notion of literary work drew attention. Truer to writerly stereotype was the Murakami of the early 1980s, when he turned pro as a novelist after closing the jazz bar he’d owned in Tokyo. “Once I was sitting at a desk writing all day I started putting on the pounds,” he remembers in The New Yorker. “I was also smoking too much — sixty cigarettes a day. My fingers were yellow, and my body reeked of smoke.” Aware that something had to change, Murakami performed an experiment on himself: “I decided to start running every day because I wanted to see what would happen. I think life is a kind of laboratory where you can try anything. And in the end I think it was good for me, because I became tough.”

Adherence to such a lifestyle, as Murakami tells it, has enabled him to write all his novels since, including hits like Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Kafka on the Shore. (On some level, it also reflects his protagonists’ tendency to make transformative leaps from one version of reality into another.) Its rigor has surely contributed to the discipline necessary for the rest of his output as well: translation into his native Japanese of works including The Great Gatsby, but also large quantities of first-person writing on his own interests and everyday life. Protective of his reputation in English, Murakami has allowed almost none of the latter to be published in this language.

But in light of the voracious consumption of self-improvement literature in the English-speaking world, and especially in America, translation of his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running must have been an irresistible proposition. “I’ve never recommended running to others,” Murakami writes in The New Yorker piece, which is drawn from the book. “If someone has an interest in long-distance running, he’ll start running on his own. If he’s not interested in it, no amount of persuasion will make any difference.” For some, Murakami’s example has been enough: take the writer-vlogger Mel Torrefranca, who documented her attempt to follow his example for a week. For her, a week was enough; for Murakami, who’s been running-while-writing for nearly forty years now, there could be no other way.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Umberto Eco’s 36 Rules for Writing Well (in English or Italian)

Creative Commons image by Rob Bogaerts, via the National Archives in Holland

Umberto Eco knew a great many things. Indeed too many things, at least according to his critics: “Eco knows everything there is to know and spews it in your face in the most blasé manner,” declared Pier Paolo Pasolini, “as if you were listening to a robot.” That line appears quoted in Tim Parks’ review of Pape Satàn Aleppe, a posthumous collection of essays from La Bustina di Minerva, the magazine column Eco had written since 1985. “This phrase means ‘Minerva’s Matchbook,'” Parks explains. “Minerva is a brand of matches, and, being a pipe smoker, Eco used to jot down notes on the inside flap of their packaging. His columns were to be equally extemporaneous, compulsive and incisive, each as illuminating and explosive as a struck match.”

At the same time, “the reference to the Roman goddess Minerva is important; it warns us that in the modern world we may struggle to distinguish between divinities and bric-a-brac.” This was as true, and remains as true, in the realm of letters as in any other. And of all the things Eco knew, he surely knew best how to use words; hence his La Bustina di Minerva column laying out 40 rules for speaking and writing.

This meant, of course, speaking and writing in Italian, his native tongue and the language of which he spent his career demonstrating complete mastery. But as translator Gio Clairval shows in her English rendition of Eco’s rules, most of them apply just as well to this language.

“I’ve found online a series of instructions on how to write well,” says Eco’s introduction to the list. “I adopt them with a few variations because I think they could be useful to writers, particularly those who attend creative writing classes.” A few examples will suffice to give a sense of his guidance:

  • Avoid alliterations, even if they’re manna for morons.
  • Avoid clichés: they’re like death warmed over.
  • Never generalize.
  • Hold those quotes. Emerson aptly said, “I hate quotes. Tell me only what you know.”
  • Don’t write one-word sentences. Ever.
  • Recognize the difference between the semicolon and the colon: even if it’s hard.
  • Do you really need rhetorical questions?
  • Be concise; try expressing your thoughts with the least possible number of words, avoiding long sentences– or sentences interrupted by incidental phrases that always confuse the casual reader– in order to avoid contributing to the general pollution of information, which is surely (particularly when it is uselessly ripe with unnecessary explanations, or at least non indispensable specifications) one of the tragedies of our media-dominated time.
  • Don’t be emphatic! Be careful with exclamation marks!
  • No need to tell you how cloying preteritions are.

Not only does each of Eco’s points offer a useful piece of writing advice, it elegantly demonstrates just how your writing will come off if you fail to follow it. In the event that “you can’t find the appropriate expression,” he writes, “refrain from using colloquial/dialectal expressions.” To this he appends, of course, a colloquial expression, Peso el tacòn del buso: “The patch is worse than the hole.” However clichéd it sounds in Italian, all of us would do well to bear it in mind no matter the language in which we write. (And if you write in Italian, be sure to read Eco’s original column, which contains additional rules applying only to that language: Non usare metafore incongruenti anche se ti paiono “cantare,” for instance. Sono come un cigno che deraglia.)

You can read all 36 of Eco’s English-relevant writing rules at Clairval’s site. If you’d like to hear more of his writing advice, watch the Louisiana Channel interview clip we featured after his death in 2016. And elsewhere in our archives, you can compare and contrast Eco’s list of rules for writing with those drawn up by the likes of Walter Benjamin, Steven Pinker, Stephen King, V.S. Naipaul, Friedrich Nietzsche, Elmore Leonard, and George Orwell. Though Eco could, in his writing, assume what Parks calls an “immeasurably superior” persona, he surely would have agreed with the final, thoroughly English point on Orwell’s list: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

Related content:

Umberto Eco Dies at 84; Leaves Behind Advice to Aspiring Writers

Umberto Eco’s How To Write a Thesis: A Witty, Irreverent & Highly Practical Guide Now Out in English

Umberto Eco Explains Why We Make Lists

Watch Umberto Eco Walk Through His Immense Private Library: It Goes On, and On, and On!

Free Italian Lessons

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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