Read good writers. This is perhaps not said enough: we write more like the people we read than we perhaps know. Those who read all academic textbooks and reference books, as both undergrads and grads tend to do, are influenced by those kinds of books. Those who read Flannery O’Connor tend to write like her — well, some of her rubs off. (No one has yet written like her.) And those who read Hemingway’s sparse prose tend to write more sparsely. That is why I suggest, every now and then, picking up a really good writer and reading her or him — reading aloud or slowly to relish every word so the ear begins to hear the cadences and style of good writing. Speaking of Hemingway, I recently picked up a biography and a memoir of someone who was at times called an English (as in UK) Hemingway kind of writer. Who might that be?
Anthony Powell, with “Powell” pronounced like “No-el.”
I’m reading Michael Barber, Anthony Powell: A Life. And I’m reading Powell’s own To Keep the Ball Rolling.
Now an admission: I am reading Barber to give me perspective on Powell because I don’t know the life of Powell well enough to read his memoirs (it’s an anthology of his memoirs, which are more than one volume). But, I’m finding Barber’s prose to be delightful and witty and, in some ways, a bit of an imitation of Powell — which, if you go back to the first paragraph, is the point. We are influenced by those we read.
I’d like to be better at understatement; my style is more direct; Powell is a master (and Barber imitates that, too). Along with understatement, I’d like to be better at indirection — and Powell once again is a master. One might have to read deeply in his novels to see all this, but I’m hoping the biography and the memoirs will let me hear a master at work.
I think writers are better for reading good writers; preachers get better by reading masters of prose; students get better by reading good writers (and not just textbooks!); bloggers — can I get a witness? — would blog better if they read good writers.
I could list a bundle of writers to whom I turn for good prose — sometimes only a few pages before I begin writing each day — but I’d like to know whose prose and style you like.