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How to Write

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How to Write

Alastair Fowler



Great Clarendon Street, Oxford ox2 6dp

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© Alastair Fowler 2006

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First published 2006

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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

Data available

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Fowler, Alastair.

How to write / Alastair Fowler.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical reference and index.

ISBN-13: 978–0–19–927850–3 (alk. paper)

ISBN-10: 0–19–927850–4 (alk. paper)

1. English language—Rhetoric. 2. Report writing. I. Title.

PE1408.F548 2006



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ISBN 0–19–927850–4 (Pbk.)

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978–0–19–927850–3 (Pbk.)


This is not a writing manual, nor a guide to grammar, nor

to rhetoric. Obviously not: look at its length, or lack of it.

It is only a small book aiming to help you form ideas about

writing, and to write whenever you want to. Writing need

not be an ordeal nor an impossible feat. It is a do-able

task: one that becomes a pleasure when you get into it.

Reading this book should make writing easier, and

should keep you from breaking your head in attempts on

the impossible. But I don’t guarantee masterpieces. In

fact, I don’t mean to deal with creative writing. How could

one ever generalize about the ways of creative writers?

Their methods are individual to a fault: some pursue total

spontaneity; some mull over poems for months and then

write them in a day; while Georges Simenon wrote within

the same timetable as his story. This book merely tells

how to write to a deadline, without fuss, pieces like

reports, essays, term papers, or theses, with a more or less

predetermined size. Some of this may be of interest to

poets, novelists, and those who would like to be one or the

other; but that is purely coincidental.

Writing an assignment to a deadline may seem simple

enough. But forty years’ reading of students’ papers of

various sorts, in both the UK and the USA, has taught me


otherwise. Some papers were cobbled together without

discernible signs of planning, and obviously written at the

last moment. Others were out of scale, or dealt with only

part of the assigned topic. A few were missing altogether

(‘I just couldn’t get started’): the non-writer had waited

for inspiration that never came. Yet this was not always

due to laziness or lack of motivation. On the contrary,

some students had done far too much preparatory read-

ing (as one could tell from their opening paragraphs of

agonized methodological wrestling) or had over-revised

and prematurely polished a faulty argument. I infer there

is a place for some such book as this. Indeed, it arose out

of lectures that were repeated by request.

Why do so many people—not only students—have

problems with writing? The historical reasons can be

briefly given. Until the early nineteenth century, educated

people could apparently write whenever they wanted to,

by using one rhetorical method or another. But then,

formal rhetoric became perhaps too rule-bound. In any

case it was rejected—to be replaced by expressive writing.

People began to wait for inspiration: for overflows of

powerful feeling which sometimes moved them to write

but often didn’t. There is no going back to the old rhetoric.

It depended on arts of memory and on a knowledge of the

classics now beyond recovery. Instead, we need a different,

more informal rhetoric: one based on a modern grammar

closer to speech yet with the exactness and nuances of

written language. And we need a method of writing such

as will allow for precise distinctions, when these are

appropriate, as well as for easy serendipities—‘I don’t

know what I mean to say until I say it.’


We have been through a phase of education when gram-

mar was ignored and writing thought possible without

it: a phase when spelling, and therefore distinction

between words, was neglected; when it was thought ‘too

discouraging’ for a teacher to correct errors. Some people

feel deprived by this, and want to catch up. This book is

meant partly for them.

I shall say little about style, because for ordinary writers

image is not everything—is in fact, compared to function,

very little. The focus will be on how to make words

work. Robert Lanham claims that ‘America is the only

country in the world rich enough to have the leisure, and

democracy enough to have the inclination, to teach its

whole citizenry not merely to write, but to write well.’ In

my view, no country can afford not to do this, for the sake

of simple efficiency, let alone the quality of life.

The chapters that follow need not be read in any one

sequence. It’s all right to jump ahead to what seems

more interesting, or back to what you passed over at

first. Readers’ needs are so various that a mosaic struc-

ture seemed best. With this in mind, I have supplied

an index and have sometimes given cross-references (in

small capitals) to other chapters.

Writing manuals are usually designed for a specific

readership. But this is a book for several sorts of reader,

from beginners to senior citizens: all those, indeed, who

sometimes have to write but find it difficult. Inevitably,

then, some of the book will not be right for you. If you find

a section irrelevant to your needs, too easy or obscure,

simply move on. Use the Index, or browse: you may find

another section that speaks to you. To save time, the book



is bluntly phrased. But I don’t mean to be unnecessarily

prescriptive: there are many different ways of writing, and

if the way I suggest provokes you to practise its opposite,

that’s fine: I shall have succeeded in getting you going.

More people than I can remember have helped me write

this: all my teachers, for a start, and my tutors (not least C.

S. Lewis); then, my colleagues, and all the pupils who have

ever written essays for me. I’m glad to acknowledge the

help of Sophie Goldsworthy with the initial planning of

the book, and the contributions of those who troubled to

read chapters in draft and explain some of the blunders:

Christopher Busby, Anne Coldiron, Paul Cheshire, Robert

Cummings, Neville Davies, David vander Meulen, my son

David S. Fowler, and the readers for the Press. Above all, I

thank my wife, who put up with my preoccupation, as well

as combing newspapers for good (bad) examples of how

not to write.




viii P R E FA C E


1. Pen and Computer

2. Material Reading

3. Beginning

4. Drafts

5. Outlines

6. Paragraphs

7. Paragraph Types

8. Arguments

9. Signposts

10. Sentences

11. Word Order

12. Punctuation

13. Quotation

14. Originality

15. Readers

16. Words

17. Metaphors

18. Performance and


19. Revising





















20. Correctness

21. Reducing

22. Research: Hard and Soft

23. Reference Books

24. Practicalities

25. Recapitulation

further reading











1. Pen and Computer

You can write only with your brain; but whether to pro-

cess your thoughts with a computer or pen and paper

is your first practical choice as a writer. I suppose it

is still possible to ignore the computer and write just

with pencil and paper. A surprising number of writers,

including Martin Amis, A. S. Byatt, Ted Hughes, John

Irving, Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Sontag, John Updike,

and Edmund White prefer longhand for serious writing.

But the advantages of the computer are so great that it

seems almost irresponsible to pass them up. A computer

greatly accelerates editing procedures, allowing you to

take a piece through far more drafts than you could

otherwise. On-screen correction is so easy that people of

all ages find the process relaxing, even pleasurable. Com-

puters give a sense of freedom from lasting error that no

one who has experienced it will want to give up. I shall

never forget the excitement I felt, twenty-five years ago,

when I discovered that words had ceased to be indelible.

So in this book I shall take for granted that you will prob-

ably use a computer for some, if not all, the processes of


Many people use a computer throughout, and never

feel the need to print out hard copy. Mathematicians, in

particular, produce papers and even books entirely on-

screen. In principle, it is possible to write and publish


electronically, without ever lifting pen or pencil. For some,

however, especially those engaged in literary work, this

may not always be the way to get the most out of the


Computers of the present generation have certain limi-

tations, arising from the screen display, which for some

people tend to complicate the process of writing long

pieces. Even with the best flat-screen monitor you can’t

comfortably read long texts. And you can’t actively browse

with any clear sense of where you are in the text.

Good writing depends on extensive reading, not only

previous reading of other works but also frequent scans of

your own piece, the one you’re working on. Yet if it runs to

any considerable length, uninterrupted reading on-screen

is difficult. A monitor’s field of view is necessarily local,

limited to about 150 words—much less than a printed

page. This is fine for drafting a postcard; but not for

extensive reading or browsing. To scroll through succes-

sive screenfuls is hardly an adequate substitute: it is too

fragmentary and remote from ordinary reading. In active

browsing you need to be able to skim or read a page or

two here, check the index there, and jump back or for-

ward at will, always aware of structure and proportion,

always aware of each passage’s relation to the text as a


Working by the screenful can have the unfortunate con-

sequence of smoothing your writing prematurely. For on-

screen correction is so easy that the grammar and word

choices gel too soon, without enough consideration being

given to the overall sequence or the underlying structure.

Decisions about the piece as a whole may tend to be


passed over, so that the end result is polished enough, but

boring: flat, shapeless, even garrulous.

Some have gone so far as to argue that the fluency and

facility of composing on-screen are positively bad for writ-

ing, since they make you forget the reader’s experience of

your piece. The beautiful screen is supposed to delude us

into a false consciousness, flattering us with the illusion

that technical procedures (correction of typos, format

changes, boilerplate insertions, rearrangement of phrases,

and the like) can do it all by magic. You cast wonderful

spells, but find they are somehow not enough. But the

evidence for all this (cited by Edward Mendelson in a

1990 Academic Computing article) is no longer thought

compelling. In any case, the remedy is a very simple one:

any limitation you feel in the computer’s display can be

overcome by printing out hard copy. I shall assume, in

fact, that you will work from printouts whenever you find

it more convenient to do so.

Composing on-screen, revising as you go, is obviously

fine for short letters, emails, and routine reports. But

many people find that anything longer than 250 words or

so—and certainly any competitive or ambitious piece that

needs much thought—is better printed out for reading

and drafting. For many writers drafting is not a detour but

the best way forward.

An additional reason for alternating screen and paper

applies only to some writers, who find their thinking in

front of a screen slower. After a time the computer has

for them a dulling, even stupefying effect. Others report

quite the reverse, finding that the computer’s pleasur-

ability encourages thinking on-screen, as Michael Heim


claims in Electric Language (1987). People differ; but it

does no harm to take a break from the screen every half

hour or so, for your circulation’s sake.

Some writers find it helps to jot down the earliest draft

on paper, where they can vary the size of words for empha-

sis, use abbreviations, and resort to private symbols. Even

illegible scribbles can be turned to account: paper writers

can postpone resolution of ambiguities, defer grammat-

ical structuring, delay lexical choices, allow their minds

to explore vague surrounding associations, and perhaps

encounter serendipities. For them, the computer closes

off too many syntactic options, and calls for definition

of ideas still inchoate. Other writers, however, more at

ease on the keyboard, value the rapid rearrangement

and deletion that can be done on-screen. Inserts can go

in as they come to mind, without need for memos or

post-its. In drafting, the choice between pen and keyboard

may be partly a matter of age, partly of training and


At any rate, when you have reached the stage of a rough

outline, you may want to print it out for ease of reading.

Working with the draft on paper, you can read it more

easily, and see whether each passage is proportioned and

positioned where it should be. But don’t forget to have the

latest draft on-screen, ready for you to slot in corrections,

references, and new ideas.

Except for a complete beginner, computer spellchecks

can waste time. They have a way of giving the correct

spelling of the wrong word. Better to have a good diction-

ary on disk (or on your desk), and consult it for yourself.

When you work on the final draft, though, a spellcheck


sometimes finds inconsistencies. A grammar check, too, if

it is a very good one, can be instructive. But again it is

better still to learn some grammar. If you could have a

program to write the whole piece for you without effort on

your part, would you buy it? If the answer is yes, read no




2. Material Reading

To write, you need first to read; ‘writing is an offshoot of

reading’, says Anita Brookner. Or writing can be thought of

as conversation with people who are absent: when your

turn to speak comes, it helps to remind yourself of what

they have said. Besides, ‘it’s always easier to draw from

the storehouse of memory than to think up something

original’ (Montaigne). To have ideas and words in mem-

ory, however, you must at some time have read or heard

them. In a sense everything you have ever read provides

the thought and vocabulary of your own writing. More

immediately, though, you can read to gather the materials

you need for your new piece.

Purposeful reading calls for an appropriate speed. Some

think of reading as a passive state in which words scroll

past at a rate fixed by nature, by the fact that you are a

‘fast’ reader or a ‘slow’ one. But anyone can learn to read at

different speeds, and select the one that suits the task. Fast

reading, slow reading, skimming, local analysis: each has

its advantages and limitations. Fast reading leaves a more

distinct impression of argument and structure but misses

subtleties. Slow reading registers the fine grain of figures

and textures, but sometimes in focusing on trees misses

the wood. Skimming (glancing through cursorily) rapidly

gathers instances or main points of an argument; it forms

a broad impression and sometimes a false one. Browsing

6 M AT E R I A L R E A D I N G

(idly dipping at random) searches unsystematically for

matters of interest or to gain an impression of quality. It is

best done off-screen: ‘browsing’ in computer terminology

refers to a different, more directed activity.

Always combine goal-oriented reading with note-taking.

In fact, it’s a good idea to try to annotate most of what you

read seriously, even when you have no special purpose.

Annotation forms your views and helps you find your way

around the text later (perhaps much later); it strengthens

your memory. But aim to keep the annotation brief: very

short phrases are enough to sum up the content, note

topics of interest, points to look up, arguments to ques-

tion, things to remember. If the text develops an argument,

make a brief abstract of it. How brief is brief? To begin

with, your notes may be depressingly long—longer than

the text itself, perhaps. Later, when you recognize com-

monplaces, your notes can be more succinct—perhaps

only a phrase per page. Compressing and expressing in

your own words is an effort, but an effort worth making. It

helps you to come to terms with the ideas and perhaps

assimilate them.

The notes can go on index cards or in a notebook, or can

deface the margins of a disposable edition. Or you can

entrust them to the computer, if you feel confident of

being able to retrieve them years later.

Reading divides naturally into long-term and short-term

projects. The œuvres of voluminous, canonical authors

such as Malory, Wittgenstein, or Voltaire are not read in a

day. Even if eventually you get round to reading every

word of them, they clearly come in the category of long-

term, back-burner projects. Such reading needs to be

M AT E R I A L R E A D I N G 7

done at a speed the author requires; whatever time it

takes, you surrender to the wonder and excitement of


Short-term reading to a deadline is a different sort

of activity altogether. In such goal-oriented reading you

yourself should be in command: you decide the pace,

you pursue an objective of your own. Single-mindedly you

gather the material your piece calls for—and nothing else.

In the short time allotted, you may have to skim rather

than read. There may be time only to confirm an impres-

sion, locate a quotation, detect a flaw in your adversary’s

position, or check that your own argument is supported

as strongly as you thought. Occasionally you may gut a

whole book for a single fact, without compunction. Or you

may reread a page of Martin Amis, just to verify you have

been just in calling him repetitious. In skimming a work

for its main gist, you may concentrate on the structure of

sections and subsections, focusing perhaps on paragraph

topics. (See Chapter 6.)

Annotating short-term reading is a hasty, scrappy busi-

ness, for the material gleaned may be no more than a few

scribbled phrases on scraps of paper, to be used or dis-

carded within minutes. If there are long quotations, you

can save time by photocopying or scanning them, then

numbering and cuing them for insertion later. Shorter

passages can be signalized by underlining, highlighting,

or numbered references cued in your notes. If you use

index cards, a sorting tray may be useful; but for a few

slips of paper foldback clips are enough. In all this, don’t

forget that excessive organization easily substitutes for

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