LawProse Lesson #242: Replicating Good Prose from Memory.
In Lesson #235: Learning to write by sedulous aping, we saw how useful it is to try replicating a choice passage from an excellent writer. It’s perhaps the best way to develop your writerly chops. Many readers requested more lessons with similar exercises. I’m happy to oblige. Among the best academic writers today is Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, professor of arts and letters at the University of Notre Dame. His 2015 book A Foot in the River is chock-full of superlative prose. I recommend it to you. Here’s the first passage for our exercise. Read it, study it, and try to memorize the phrasing within two minutes. Then put it aside and try to re-create it without looking back: We live on a weird planet. As far as we know, all the others are pretty much inert. Gases and dust swirl. Occasional cosmic events—experienced on earth, too, such as a blip in an orbit, the tilt of an axis, an errant meteor—may alter the environment. But most changes on most planets happen predictably, within a narrow compass, or are measurable on a slow scale of millions of years. [P. 1.] That’s surely not your style. It may never become your style. But if you can replicate it now, and if you can replicate other good styles, you’re on your way to being a true stylist in your own way. You’re on your way to mastering syntax, word choice, punctuation, and phrasing. You can see, I imagine, why both David Foster Wallace and Robert Louis Stevenson (along with many other literary luminaries) used this very exercise when learning to write—really write. Let’s try one more: Humans are not the only creatures with culture; over the last 60 years or so, scientists have identified culture among many primate species and claimed it for many others, including examples to be paraded in this book, like the menagerie of some fantastic Barnum and Bailey, such as dolphins, whales, elephants, rats, and even bacteria. Human cultures, however, are different: in comparison with other species, we are strangely unstable. [P. 3.] Again, two minutes of reading and rereading, then try re-creating it. See whether your own version holds a candle to Fernandez-Armesto’s. Wallace and Stevenson usually found that their own efforts weren’t nearly as good as the writing they were trying to copy. They learned from that. And in the process of mastering the building blocks, each developed a highly distinctive style. It’s true that this lesson requires more effort on your part than most. But the rewards to be reaped are great.