Jacques Barzun on Writing

Thoughtful feedback and encouragement from a mature editor to a new writer is described by Helen Hazen in her beautiful 2013 eulogy for Jacques Barzun titled "Endless Rewriting". She quotes from Barzun's letters of gentle (and not-so-gentle) advice, which begin in response to her first draft with:

I am ready to help as needed. I know it's disheartening to think one has finished and to be told one must start again, but it's the common lot. Often one has to tell this to oneself, which is harder, because there's nobody to curse at. I shall be glad to be used, in your anger, as "the idiot who doesn't see that, etc …," provided you go ahead and reorganize and rewrite. ...

Over a period of years, Hazen says, she shared partial drafts with Barzun and thought about his commentary. He helped her factor arguments into logical components, marshal evidence, and develop ideas. When her fundamental thesis began to take shape he suggested a roadmap to follow:

First, you must decide what your subject is. ...

Second, your chapters keep the reader wondering what indeed (what in hell) you are up to. … There is a staggering amount of repetition .... And your best original ideas, which should be the strong current by which the rest is carried, are stuck away in corners as mere asides, as trailing comments. In one sense, none of your chapters visibly does anything different from the previous one.

Third. The cure is obviously to assign each chapter A Point to Make—a big point with little ones clustering around. The successive points should be so ordered that they form an argument, a course of reasoning, which can be quickly summed up at the end. To find the points and their order, you need a half sheet of paper, headed "I believe that ..." with brief propositions below. Fiddle with the sequence until it seems to you smooth and natural, by which is meant convenient to follow.

Fourth. When you have this menu for your guest's dinner, stick to the contents of each course as you serve it—no strawberries in the soup. ... You must treat every topic once and be done with it—so you can build on top of it and not have to re-lay the foundation already set.

Hazen comments in an aside, "Strawberries in the soup indeed, an image that has stuck with me these many years."

Fifth. There are too many quotations and they are too long. The result is that the point of each is lost within the general tenor of the passage. Go over them and select the best bits for every different point ... In short, remember that your authors merely illustrate the points of your thesis; your voice must be the one steadily heard, even when you recite the extracts relevant to the point you have just made.

... advice which Hazen applies meta-masterfully in quoting Barzun himself. She passes lightly over "his sixth enjoinder" re nomenclature and concludes the excerpts from his note with:

Seventh. Most difficult of all your tasks will be to balance the kinds of material relevant to your doctrine. ... Too much personal experience will limit it to personality. There must be around each of your subtopics the support of every kind of thing you know, from books, events, reports, experience, and fantasy—or if not every kind for each, at least more than one or two. It is by the accumulation of varied bits of fact that skepticism is overcome ...

Sharp counsel for all writing, and for reason itself. As Hazen metacognitively notes, "I slowly learned to take the thought one step at a time, to think logically from one point to the next and put those thoughts into clear and effective sentences."

And after the book was finished, Barzun's recommendations on how to handle inevitably unfair critics:

1. Take up only matters of fact; i.e. ignore all personalities.
2. Use a very cool tone, which does not exclude irony but does exclude indignation and anger.
3. Keep the rejoinder short (and of course absolutely clear). For this purpose, work quite hard at successive drafts of the letter to the editor, letting it lie a couple of days between finishing and sending it. There is always a word to change before the final typing.

... and finally: stay safe — keep a "fairly wide moat" around the castle for protection against "violent lunatics … on the loose." Indeed!

(cf. Headlights and Decisions (1999-06-27), Culture, Memory, Progress (2000-09-28), How to Write (2000-11-28), ...) - ^z - 2016-03-19