How to be a Writer » Literary Divisions and General Principles

Writing Tips - Literary Divisions and General Principles

The Conceptual and Emotional — Theoretically all writing is divided easily into two classes, conceptual and emotional, the literature of thought and the literature of feeling. In the actual attempt to classify written composition on this basis, however, no sharp distinction can be maintained. Even matters of fact, certainly such matters of fact as we care to write about, are of more or less moment to us; we cannot deal with them in a wholly unemotional way. In our daily lives we are continually reaching conclusions that differ from the conclusions reached by others about the same matters of fact, and are trying to make these matters of fact have the same value for others that they have for us. This is true of our business life as well as of our social and home life. It always will be so. It is doubtless true that if our knowledge of matters of fact embraced a knowledge of the universe, and if the experience of each of us were just like that of his fellow and included all possible experience, we might reach identical conclusions. This is not true and never can be true. It is in effect true of a small portion of the things about which we think,—the addition of one to two makes three for every one,—but outside of these things, writing need not be and seldom is purely conceptual.

Subject-matter — Various as are the things about which we write and manifold as are our interests in them, they may be classified for our purposes under four heads: Matters of Fact, Experience, Beauty, Truth. Again, we shall find difficulty in separating each of these from each of the others. Some of our experiences have certainly been revelations of matters of fact; without our experiences, we should hardly have acquired any real sense of the beautiful; save for them we could not have known anything of truth. No accurate definition of these things carefully distinguishing between them can be attempted here. It may be assumed that what is meant by matters of fact will be understood without definition. As we read the story in great measure for the purpose of enlarging our experience, this part of our possible literary material is worth considering further. In the child we are able to detect very early a growing curiosity. That curiosity does not disappear when the child has grown from boy to man; he is still asking questions of the universe, still trying to piece the fragments of his knowledge into a law-ordered and will-ordered whole. What he knows has been the product of experience, what he may yet know further must be the product of experience. This experience may not all be personal, but even that which he gets at second hand is so far useful in helping him toward that understanding of the universe for which he hopes. He never will reach that understanding, all his experience will make but a fraction of things to be known matters of fact to him; and yet a deathless interest in the scarcely recognized belief that the facts and forces of which he has known have some unifying principle makes his emotions quicken at every new experience that may have possible significance.

Appeal of Experience, Beauty, and Truth — It will be evident, then, that experience which somehow makes the impression of superior importance may be presented inorganically and yet gain an interested hearing. The method of creating this impression, whether through the appearance of conviction in the writer or by various literary devices, need not detain us here. We shall be concerned merely with noting that the possible relation of the particular to the general, of this experience to the whole of experience, makes it a thing of moment. In just what way experience develops in us the sense of the beautiful, just what it is in anything that makes us distinguish beauty in it, cannot now be determined. It will be enough for us to know that literature makes a large appeal to a sense of the beautiful in us, a sense not fortuitous and irrational, though varying, but normal and almost universal, dependent upon natural laws of development. Truth is also difficult of definition, but we may understand that when out of experience, as through a process of reasoning, we have reached a conclusion that is something more than a matter of fact, a conclusion touching our emotions and having vital spiritual interest to us, the experience, whether our own directly or at second hand, has brought us to a truth. Truth is, perhaps, that matter of fact of universal intelligence that transcends the matter of fact of the finite mind.

Literary Principles and Qualities — There are some fundamental principles of literary presentation which we may briefly review here. All our study of science, and in a less obvious fashion, of all the physical, social, and artistic world about us, is more or less an attempt to classify, simplify, and unify facts whose relations we do not see at a glance. We must observe and learn the facts first, but they will be of no great utility to us as unrelated items of knowledge. The need of establishing some sort of law and order in our understanding of the mass of phenomena of which we must take cognizance is so insistent that we early acquire the habit of attempting to hold in mind any new fact through its relation to some other fact or facts. In other words, we can retain the knowledge we acquire only by making one fact do duty for a great many other facts included in it. Our writing must not violate what is at once a necessity and a pleasure of the mind. Unity, simplicity, coherence, harmony, or congruity, must all be sought as essential qualities of any writing. We must also indicate our sense of the relative values of the things with which we deal by a proper selection of details for presentation, a careful subordination of the less important to the more important through the proportion of space and attention given to each, and through other devices for securing emphasis. Let us keep in mind value, selection, subordination, proportion, emphasis, as a second group of terms for principles involved in writing. We may also wish to give our subject further elements of appeal through what may be suggested beyond the telling, through the melody and rhythm of the words, or through a quickening of the sense of the beautiful. Suggestion, melody, rhythm, beauty, are to be included, then, in a third group of qualities that may contribute to the effectiveness of what we write.

Conceptual Writing — Of the literary qualities that have just been discussed, only the first group is perhaps essential to what has been designated as conceptual writing. Here we may place expository writing on subjects wholly matter of fact, mathematical discussions, scientific treatises largely, though not necessarily, and other writing of like character. As unity is the quality of importance here, we may well consider the units of discourse. Our first unit is that of the whole composition, the second that of the paragraph, and the third that of the sentence. Which of these is the prime unit, as the dollar is the prime unit of our medium of exchange, may not be evident at once; but if we examine the writing of clear thinkers carefully, without attempting to settle the matter in any doctrinaire fashion, we shall find that the paragraph, and not the sentence, is the more unified whole. I turn to Cardinal Newman, and in the middle of a paragraph find the sentence, "This should be carefully observed," a sentence meaningless when taken from the context. As a part of the paragraph it has a function, but it is certainly as a unit of detail and not as a prime unit. A writer like Carlyle makes these lesser units more important, but they are still subordinate to their use in the paragraph. In all our writing we shall do much for the unity, simplicity, and coherence of our work by seeing to it that our paragraphs are properly arranged and that each fulfills this function of a prime unit in the composition.

The Sense of Value — When, in addition to statement of mere matters of fact, an author wishes to impress his readers with his own sense of the importance and the value of what he has to say, or of some special phase of his subject, he will employ the principles of the second group spoken of in a preceding paragraph. They cannot be ignored, indeed, in explanation of the simplest matters of fact, but a writer who means to convince and persuade will make more use of them. His personality will express itself in the selection of details and in the emphasis he places upon one detail or another. Among the literary forms which, besides being conceptual, are also concerned with persuasion, we find the oration, the essay, a great deal of business correspondence, and much of what we read in magazines and newspapers.

Writing having Artistic Quality — When in addition to expressing matters of fact or truth, appealing perhaps to experience, we wish to arouse some sense of the beautiful and the artistic, we shall give our writing some or all of the qualities of the third group. Evidently, writing of this sort is in many respects the most difficult, since the writer must have regard for unity and the related principles, as well as for the qualities which peculiarly distinguish it. Experience, beauty, and truth are all available as subject-matter, and all the principles governing literary composition are concerned. Here we shall find the poem, the drama, the oration in some of its forms, most essays of the better sort, the greater part of good critical writing, literary description, and all narrative forms except the matter-of-fact historical writing of unliterary scholars.

Two Things Requisite in Writing — It is to be borne in mind that the foregoing classifications are by no means absolute. Gardiner in his "Forms of Prose Literature" says very truly that the "essential elements, not only of literature, but of all the fine arts, are: first, an organic unity of conception; and second, the pervasive personality of the artist." It is true that much of our writing does not aspire to literary character, but in very little of our writing of any sort can we afford to neglect the first of these elements, and in very little of it do we care to leave the second out of account. Even in exposition of the simpler sort we may give to our writing the distinction of a more luminous style and the stronger appeal of a warmer personal interest, if we shape it into organic unity and make evident in it "the pervasive personality of the artist."

Narrative Forms

Literary Divisions and General Principles

The Story in Particular

Special Study of the Story

A Few Cautions

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