Wordsmithy Douglas Wilson | Review by: John Starke
Douglas Wilson. Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life. Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2011. 120 pages. $11.20 @Monergism Books.
In C. S. Lewisâ€™s fantasy world Perelandra, a place with no sin or evil, repetition is like â€œasking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.â€ Perfection has the concept of â€œenough,â€ where pleasure is complete and repetition is vulgar. For those of us who read and re-read writing how-to books like Harry Potter novels, we look for that sense of â€œenough,â€ where the formula works and weâ€™re satisfied.
Douglas Wilsonâ€™s Wordsmithy offers no such promise, since itâ€™s not his to give. Besides, it probably doesnâ€™t exist outside the world of Forms. But Wilson provides a guide to the â€œwriting lifeâ€ that doesnâ€™t simply excerpt good writing from classic literature to illustrate his principles but attempts to be the model of good writing itself.
For example, Wilson offers a real gem when warning against â€œwriting by rulesâ€ for fear coming up with something â€œlike verbal tapioca pudding made with skim milk. Our world already has too much verbiage in it that comes off like it was written by a committee or a computerâ€”or maybe a committee of computers.â€ Or when mocking aspiring writers who quote the right people so they can be known as someone who quotes the right people. â€œThey quote Austen like Mary quoted her 18th-century bromides, and were Austen here to see them do it, sheâ€™d slap them right into her next book, and it wouldnâ€™t be pretty.â€
To be clear, Wilson doesn't live in Greenwich Village and boast a contract with a New York publishing house. Heâ€™s a pastor in Moscow, Idaho, who started his own classical education movement and a college to follow. His periodical, Credenda Agenda, stirs up no small wrangles among Presbyterians. None of this slights Wilson. He has lived his own counsel: â€œLive an actual life, a full life, the kind that generates a surplus of stories.â€ He types with dirt under his fingernails.
Though Wilson never says so, writers quickly realize there is such a thing as bad style. But to perfect your style, you donâ€™t spend all your time reading manuals. Wilson doesnâ€™t include sections on brevity, unity, or usage. Rather he instructs us to get a life, read until our brains creak, get to know how language works by reading dictionaries, and learn a foreign language. In other words, Wordsmithy isnâ€™t a manual on how to write a great novel so you can go home and write it this afternoon. Rather, if you want to be a writer, Wilson offers tips for what you do for the next 30 years.
The mindful reader will realize that to follow Wilson all the way will make you a certain kind of writer. He does not dispense generic tips. To be sure, any writer who wants to improve would need to follow the spirit of Wilsonâ€™s tips, but to be a Wilson-kind-of-writer means to value a certain rhetorical style. Maybe thereâ€™s a label for this school of writing, but if there is, I donâ€™t know its name. I only have a sense of it, a rhythmic prose that follows the Austen-Chesterton-Wodehouse-Lewis line of quick wit and belly-laughs. You probably know the kind.
If an author is going to give us tips for a writing life, he only knows one kind of life, his own. He only knows to suggest certain books, the ones he's read. So we need to choose our writing manuals wisely, just like we need to choose our teachers wisely.
Letâ€™s suppose, though, for a moment that you, like Mark Twain, despise writers like Jane Austen. â€œEvery time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin bone,â€ Twain said. I can imagine that Twain would be impatient with Wilson as well. Does it follow, then, that we should neglect a book like Wilsonâ€™s? There certainly are other books like Stephen Kingâ€™s On Writing, which gives writing lifestyle instructions without the Anglo-Saxon wit that Twain despised as flighty.
But hereâ€™s my case for Wilsonâ€™s Wordsmithy. Wilson doesnâ€™t give tips for taking command of Lewis or Wodehouse, but he shows us a lifestyle that takes command of the English language. He doesnâ€™t teach us to be mockers but to be deft wordsmiths.
You shouldnâ€™t be as cranky as Twain anyway. Austen will make your nose snort with laughter, and so does Wilson. Heâ€™ll spin your head with prose and make you wonder how he did it. He wonâ€™t tell you how he did it, but heâ€™ll write five more and then point to authors who do it all the time. He shows young writers still looking for their voice how to find one. Youâ€™ll read this book fast and go back to it again. Wilson has wisdom only a wise man knows.
John Starke is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and lead pastor of All Souls Church in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter.