Twenty years after William Strunk and E.B. White pleaded wordsmiths to write with nouns and verbs, Brenda Ueland made the case for plain, honest writing in If You Want to Write— that timeless trove of wisdom on the beauty of the imagination, the triumphant ecstasy of creation, and the wondrous glory of human potential. Though many of us have been taught that writing has to be “literary”— ostentatious and pompous, full of words like “thus” and “ultimately”—Ueland affirms good writing is actually simple— poetic words are short words. To be good writers, she argues, we must unlearn all our years of instruction:
“Though everybody is talented and original, often it does not break through for a long time. People are too scared, too self-conscious, too proud, too shy. They have been taught too many things about construction, plot, unity, mass, coherence.
My little brother wrote a composition when he was twelve and almost every third sentence was: “But alas, to no avail!” That is the sort of thing everybody does for many years. That is because they have been taught that writing is something special and not just talking on paper.
Another trouble with writers in the first twenty years is an anxiety to be effective, to impress people. They write pretentiously. It is hard not to do this. That was my trouble.
For many years it puzzled me why so many things I wrote were pretentious, lying, high-sounding, and in consequence utterly dull and uninteresting. It was a regular horror to read them again. Of course, they did not sell, not one of them.”
“Don’t end a sentence in a preposition!”
“Never begin a sentence with ‘but’ or ‘and’!”
“Is that a 3 word sentence I see? Unacceptable!”
For Ueland, too many promising young writers have internalized the nit-picky perfectionism of grade school composition. While such advice can serve as useful guidelines to writing, most of us glorify these directions as if they were the words of God rather than the outmoded doctrines of too-serious English teachers. Our teacher’s distaste for certain words became our ten commandments. “Never use ‘said’!” she admonished, “Choose a livelier, more expressive word!”
10 years later and we still hear this rebuke whenever we reach for a plain mode of expression. “No, no we can’t say ‘said’! It’s too simple; better say ‘screech’ or ‘mumble’ or ‘whisper’ instead…” Not that opting for a more specific word is bad advice (often times we over-rely on empty, generic words like ‘said’); just that guidelines that take the form of prohibitive, inflexible rules usually inhibit our creativity. Whenever we dutifully change a word because of dogma our teachers preached years ago, Ueland believed we were doubting ourselves rather creating in self-trust, the most unforgivable sin against our creative selves. In her lovely ode to the writer’s life, she implores us to stop buying into the myth of “real” writing and instead write authentically from ourselves.
As a writing teacher, Ueland’s greatest tragedy was witnessing her most talented students hopelessly struggle with self-doubt. How many would scribble out ‘is’ and rewrite a sentence in the active voice because forms of ‘to be’—they were told—were ‘lifeless’ and ‘dead’! “No, we can’t use ‘is’,” they’d explain, “‘is’ is on the banned words list!” Again, not that this idea is wrong in itself: the active voice is generally more engaging than the passive. What’s so harmful about this rule and so many other restrictive suggestions like it is that it represses joy and curiosity and wonder, not to mention who we are and our deepest truths. When we can’t silence the stern inner critic, the uptight grammar school teacher within, we end up stifling ourselves because we’re terrified of breaking the rules.
The strict, unbending rules of humorless English teachers convince us “good” writing is a kind of mathematical equation: plug numbers into a formula and produce moving work. But we can only produce moving work, when we write honestly in self-trust, when we’re not, as Ueland would so unpretentiously say, “putting on airs.” Over the years, we’ve learned to discount our own voices, our own distinctive way of seeing and experiencing things and instead have become obsessively preoccupied with pleasing others, each of our teacher’s squiggly red marks an assault on our divine creative impulse. After one too many criticisms, we retreated: settled for following the “rules” and getting a gold star instead of striving to write plainly from a place of authenticity. But at the core of If You Want to Write lies the conviction that becoming a writer means resurrecting this abandoned self.