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There’s nothing I wish I’d known, because the only way to learn and know is by experience. There is only trial and error and the instruction writing must always take from life. I suspect many writers setting out think quite a lot about style—‘their’ style. If asked what style is, they might say something like, ‘It is a way with words. My style is the distinctive way with words I want to have and by which I might even one day be recognised.’

This is an understandable ambition, but if you think about style in this conscious and purposeful way the chances are you will end up with something brittle and superficial. If you really have something to say style will take care of itself, it will be secondary. Writing works from the core to the outside, from what is beneath to the words on the surface, not the other way round.  If you honestly feel when you write, ‘Something is making these words happen,’ then fortunately you are in the right direction. If you honestly feel, ‘I am trying to make the words make something happen,’ then unfortunately you are not. But at least you are being honest, since, unfortunately, the latter case is by far the commoner predicament of writers.

Style and even words are not in themselves important. They are not an end (or beginning), but a means. It is what drives them that matters. A Roman writer, Quintilian, little read or even known now, said a good thing about style: Pectus est quod disertos facitPectus—as in ‘pectoral muscles’, the muscles that cover the main organs of life. ‘It is the breast that makes style.’ It should be every writer’s motto.

This is an understandable ambition, but if you think about style in this conscious and purposeful way the chances are you will end up with something brittle and superficial. If you really have something to say style will take care of itself, it will be secondary. Writing works from the core to the outside, from what is beneath to the words on the surface, not the other way round.  If you honestly feel when you write, ‘Something is making these words happen,’ then fortunately you are in the right direction. If you honestly feel, ‘I am trying to make the words make something happen,’ then unfortunately you are not. But at least you are being honest, since, unfortunately, the latter case is by far the commoner predicament of writers.

Style and even words are not in themselves important. They are not an end (or beginning), but a means. It is what drives them that matters. A Roman writer, Quintilian, little read or even known now, said a good thing about style: Pectus est quod disertos facitPectus—as in ‘pectoral muscles’, the muscles that cover the main organs of life. ‘It is the breast that makes style.’ It should be every writer’s motto.

Graham Swift was born in London in 1949 and is the author of ten novels, two collections of short stories, including the highly acclaimed England and Other Stories, and of Making an Elephant, a book of essays, portraits, poetry and reflections on his life in writing. His most recent novel, Mothering Sunday, became an international bestseller and won the Hawthornden Prize for best work of imaginative literature. With Waterland he won the Guardian Fiction Prize and with Last Orders  the Booker Prize. Both novels were made into films. His work has appeared in over thirty languages.  His next book, Here We Are, will be published by Scribner in February 2020.

 

This article is part of a series of experienced writers and authors sharing what they wish they had known when they first started writing.

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