« ZurückWeiter »
Again, suppose, as is perhaps more often the case, that our object be to write an argument, to convince people that our way of looking at a given state of things is the sane one. Argument conveniently divides itself into two parts, — premises and conclusion, or, as the Rhetorics phrase it, proof and proposition. We have some definite thing to maintain, - our conclusion or proposition; and we show why we maintain it by definitely stated reasons, which we call premises or proof. In what order should we present this matter? Should we begin by stating our proposition, and then collect the proof in the strongest order in which we can marshal it; or should we begin by collecting our proof, and so lead up to a final statement of our proposition ? Again, either method is legitimate, and so are combinations of both. In this case, indeed, the general question of composition becomes to a great degree a question of tact. Abruptly to state a proposition with which readers would be apt to disagree is unwise, for much the reason that makes unwise any act of deliberately unpopular behavior. Needlessly to keep back a proposition which commands general assent is often equally unwise, partly because it needlessly puts off one of the bonds of sympathy that may be formed between writer and reader. As in narrative, the question reduces itself to a deliberate consideration of what effect we have in mind.
In my teaching I have found one purely mechanical device of much value here. Whatever our object,
whatever kind of writing we undertake, and on whatever scale, our work must inevitably divide itself into certain separate parts. Our books must fall into chapters, our chapters or single essays into paragraphs. What shall those parts be? is the question; in what order shall they be arranged ? The simplest way I have found of answering these questions is this : On separate bits of paper — cards, if they be at handI write down the separate headings that occur to me, in what seems to me the natural order. Then, when my little pack of cards is complete, — in other words,
, when I have a card for every heading which I think of, - I study them and sort them almost as deliberately as I should sort a hand at whist; and it has very rarely been my experience to find that a shift of arrangement will not decidedly improve the original order. Ideas that really stand in the relation of proof to proposition frequently present themselves as coordinate. The same idea will sometimes phrase itself in two or three distinct ways, whose superficial differences for the moment conceal their identity; and more frequently still, the comparative strength and importance, and the mutual relations, of really distinct ideas will in the first act of composition curiously conceal themselves from the writer. A few minutes' shuffling of these little cards has often revealed to me more than I should have learned by hours of unaided pondering. In brief, they enable one, by simple acts of rearrangement, to make any number of fresh plans. If the first plan be drawn out on a single page, every
new one must be written afresh. Mechanical as the device is, I find it most serviceable.
In the stage of composition at which we have now arrived, the general principle which should guide our conduct is nothing more nor less than our old friend, the principle of Mass. Generally speaking, the chief parts of any composition should be so placed as readily to catch the eye. In compositions on a scale so large as that of wholes there are three distinct things that must inevitably catch the eye: two are what must catch the eye even in sentences, — the beginning and the end; the third is what we saw beginning to appear in paragraphs, – the comparative space devoted to the different parts of the matter in hand. These I shall consider in turn.
The beginning of any composition may wisely, I think, indicate what the composition is about. Compare, for example, the opening sentences of two standard histories of England, Hume's and Macaulay's.
". The curiosity, entertained by all civilized nations," begins Hume,“ of inquiry into the exploits and adven
6 tures of their ancestors commonly excites a regret that the history of remote ages should always be so much involved in obscurity, uncertainty, and contradiction."
And so on for a page, in my edition, before he begins to tell what he purposes to do.
" I purpose,” begins Macaulay, “ to write the history of England from the accession of King James the Second down to a time which is within the memory of men still living.” And so on, for a page or two, distinctly laying down the plan of the great work he never finished. No one, I think, can question the superior efficacy of Macaulay's method. Again, compare with the opening of almost any respectable modern novel the opening pages of those generally much more notable pieces of fiction, the novels of Sir Walter Scott. There may be living occasional individuals who have resisted the impulse to skip the endless lucubrations of Dryasdust and what not; but I do not remember having met one.
The fact is that there was once a formal old fashion, pretty generally observed, of beginning any piece of writing by a lot of more or less commonplace generalization ; and that modern writers have begun to find out that such passages are a waste of good ink and paper, inasınuch as hardly anybody has ever been known to read them. As a matter of fact, too, most people have a very strong impulse to preface something in particular by at least a paragraph of nothing in particular, bearing to the real matter in hand a relation not more inherently intimate than that of the tuning of violins to a symphony. It is the mechanical misfortune of musicians that they cannot with certainty tune their instruments out of hearing. It is the mechanical luck of the writer that he need not show a bit more of his work than he chooses. As a teacher, my most frequent experience is the striking out of the first page or so of a student's compositions; as a writer, so far as my experience has gone, I have almost always forced myself ruthlessly to destroy the original beginnings of whatever I have written; and this just because these spontaneous beginnings involve a needless disregard of the principle of Mass, so serious as greatly to impair the actual effect a writer has in view.
So much for the principle of Mass as it applies to the beginnings of whole compositions. Its application to their close is very similar. Whoever does not take deliberate care is very apt to go on writing and talking after he has really said his say. Physical fatigue sometimes comes to his rescue here; but not so often as you would expect. Yet a weak ending is in final effect a more fatal thing than a weak beginning. It is, in brief, anti-climax at its worst, — the most false
, of false emphasis. Whoever has listened to afterdinner speaking knows this from bitter experience. If there is anything more utterly depressing than a speech which begins flatly, it is one that begins well and ends with dreary commonplace. If the case is not quite so palpable in print, it is just as true. More than anywhere else, we should keep in mind concerning our whole compositions that if they are to have on the reader the effect we wish to produce, they must end with words that deserve distinction.
Here, too, as a teacher I have often found my practical work taking the form of amputation. It is far more common to find the best end of a composition imbedded in what at first glance looks like the body thereof than not to find it at all; and when you appreciate that a given piece of writing ends weakly, you