Sir Walter Scott once said, “I care not who knows it–I write for the general amusement.” Which must be how many of the Olympians feel this week, knowing they are not on pace for a World Record but they will have fun–in the pool, on the track, on the beach, on the course. Even Katie Ledecky, who set a lot of records, says, “It’s fun to swim fast.”
It’s fun for me to write a good sentence. Doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it amuses me!
For several years I wrote a column for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin called Amicus Scriptor (friend of the writer), trying to describe how one’s legal training could be used to advantage in becoming a writer. (Scott was an advocate, judge and legal administrator. He was the law clerk responsible for the administration of the Supreme Courts of Scotland.) The essential thing I discovered was that while our training in the precise and nuanced use of language is a great asset, the style of dramatic writing is inverted from the legal style.
Essentially, the fiction writer wants to keep you reading, but the first thing one learns in law school is to state concisely and up front the facts, the question presented and the conclusion. Fiction is the art of delay; legal writing a quick cut to the point. A writer can straddle these styles to serve the purpose of the writing.
A lawyer wrote one of my favorite books on writing, one I highly recommend, Stanley Fish’s “How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One.” His first question is, ‘what are you trying to do?’ Knowing if the sentence is to amuse, stun, provoke, describe, or whatever is the first key to writing a good sentence–legal or fiction.
Which also reminds me that September is just around the corner, and the person who taught me how to write a sentence, Fred Shafer, will be back at Off Campus Writers Workshop on Thursday mornings for a series of four lectures on writing Open to the public, up in Wilmette.