Non-fiction, by which we here mean prose non-fiction, rests upon the same fundamentals as all other writing. What are the basic facts and principles which must guide and vitalize the work of every successful writer?
Writing is an art which exists in time, for nobody can read a book at a glance. Words and sentences follow one another into the mind, moment by moment, as the eye picks them up from the printed page. Thoughts and emotions are fed into the mind like cartridges oil a belt fed into a machine-gun. Each enters and explodes in its turn. Thus we hear people say, “I read to kill time,” or, “I haven’t time to read all that!” Time, and the passage of time, is thus the basic fact confronting the writer. And since time passes, and the reader may stop reading at any moment, continuity is the writer’s main reliance. For when the reader stops reading, the writer has failed.
The first principle of the successful writer is so to interest the reader that he will continue to read. To put it more colloquially, the slogan of every writer is and must be: Keep ‘EM Reading. This is our first great rule.
There are two points of attack. Every reader has both a head and a heart both an intellect and an emotional nature. If we are wise, we shall lay siege to both, for both must march together, if they go far. Intellectual interest and emotional interest are like a man’s two legs. The reader likes to use both alternately, and is averse to hopping along on only one for any distance. He wants, on the one hand, facts and ideas to hold the attention of his intellect, and on the other, emotions and feelings which stir his emotional nature. He wants to think and to have his heart beat at one and the same time.
Our schoolbooks told us that the sentence is the unit that expresses a complete thought, a unit that combines a subject and a predicate. But to the writer, a sentence is, for ad practical purposes, that unit which contains both a fact and a feeling, both an idea and an emotion. That is the writer’s working definition of the sentence.
For, as everyone knows, a sentence may have a subject and a predicate and still be as dead as a doornail, so far as interest is concerned. In fact, some people who think they are writing are, as a matter of fact, simply “laying out” their sentences end to end, like so many undertakers. Their sentences are all “stiffs.” All the necessary parts are there, as all the necessary parts of a corpse are there when it is laid out on the slab. But the soul is missing in the sentence, as in the corpse – because there is no emotion, no feeling. If you expect to sell what you write, your sentences must have both body and soup, both fact and feeding.
From this it follows that in most writing, and in a I good prose, early every sentence has a feeling or emotion at one end, and a fact or idea at the other. For, if we are to keep the reader interested and reading, we must always apply our second great principle of style: A Fact And A Feeling In Every Sentence, or if you prefer An Idea And An Emotion In Every Sentence.
Now, if every sentence and clause is to have both a fact and a feeling, then, in writing any given sentence, the question immediately arises: which one is to come first? If in doubt, the writer may simply try the sentence both ways, and find out which is the more effective. He may write it with the fact first and the emotion second, and then turn it over and write it the other way round, with the feeling first and the idea second. Which is the more effective will depend upon the context and purpose of the passage.
Thus we arrive at our third guiding rule: Fact First Or Feeling First: Which Will Be Better?
Since we wish to present both the fact and the feeling in a unit such as the reader can grasp in a second of time, it is obvious that, as a rules we shall get better results if the facts alternate with the feelings throughout the paragraph. Since every sentence has, as it were, a head and a tail, it is generally wiser to have all the sentences in a given passage follow one another head to tail like a string of elephants in parade, each one clutching the tail of the one before.
Thus all the sentences move in the same direction. For if we face our sentences otherwise we shall have our elephants head to head, and tail to tail. This will halt the march and destroy that continuity for which we are striving. And this brings us to our fourth great principle: Let Facts And Feelings Alternate Throughout A Given Sequence.
Of course, the emotion or feeling expressed at one end or the other of your sentence need not be a violent one. It is not a matter of intensity so much as of relative emotion. From the examples given in this chapter of sentences containing both a fact and a feeling, you will readily understand that some parts of the sentence, some phrases or words, are relatively less exciting than others. That is all that is necessary. A writer must be sensitive to the qualities of words, able to distinguish between a cold word or phrase and one slightly warmer.
Naturally, the same word may seem cold in one sentence and warm with emotion in another, where the context is different. Each sentence must be judged for itself. Thus one might say, “War is hell.” In this case we have the emotion in the last word, and the fact in the first. One might say, “Hell is murky,” and find that the word “hell” is now the fact, while “murky” carries the emotion. Thus any word may be the expression of the fact in one sentence, and the expression of feeling in another.
Next: The Four Great Rules For Style
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