Category Archives: writing

Comparing Coleridge and Orwell on the relationship between clear thinking and clear writing

Writing 128 years apart, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and George Orwell had similar ideas about the relationship between clear thinking and clear writing.

Here’s the closing of Coleridge’s 1818 lecture on prose style (boldface added):

“And I cannot conclude this Lecture without insisting on the importance of accuracy of style as being near akin to veracity and truthful habits of mind; he who thinks loosely will write loosely, and, perhaps, there is some moral inconvenience in the common forms of our grammars which give children so many obscure terms for material distinctions. Let me also exhort you to careful examination of what you read, if it be worth any perusal at all; such examination will be a safeguard from fanaticism, the universal origin of which is in the contemplation of phenomena without investigation into their causes.”

Now here’s an excerpt from the second paragraph of Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language” (which picks up with the idea of cause and effect, although not strictly in the same sense in which Coleridge closed his lecture):

“But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” (Again, boldface added.)

My boldfaced sections point out one similarity: bad thinking leads to bad writing, and bad writing causes more bad thinking, in a kind of snowball effect.

But I think there might be another similar thread in the two excerpts, one that might be subtler. Coleridge urges his listeners “to careful examination” of what they read, and says “such examination will be a safeguard from fanaticism.” Could it be that Coleridge’s exhortation complements Orwell’s observation that Modern English “is full of bad habits which spread by imitation”?  In other words, could “bad habits which spread by imitation” also fuel fanaticism? Are there “contemplation[s] of phenomena without investigation[s] into their causes” built into some of those “bad habits which spread by imitation”?

I need to look for evidence of that in contemporary phrases. I call dibs on the potential academic paper.

Another similarity between the Coleridge lecture and the Orwell essay: they both believe prose should be clear, straightforward, direct. They want prose writers to say what they mean and mean what they say, in the simplest language possible.

Coleridge praises Jonathan Swift’s style as “simplicity in the true sense of the word,” while Orwell criticizes “lack of precision” and “pretentious diction.”


Stumbled Upon: 2012 and 2014 EWTN Interviews With Bestselling Author Dean Koontz

I’ve only read one novel by Dean Koontz, titled Lightning, a fun read I picked up years ago. But Koontz’s reputation in the publishing business is hard to miss because he sells millions of copies of his books, which inevitably wind up on the bestseller lists. While searching for something completely different, I stumbled upon these EWTN interviews, one from 2012 and another from 2014, in which Koontz talks about his life, his work, good versus evil, and the Roman Catholic influence in his books. It’s really interesting to hear how he appropriates his Catholic faith in his writing—and to note how he doesn’t.

Heads up—the 2012 video, above, is entirely devoted to Koontz, while the 2014 video, below, includes an interview with him as part of a one-hour news program, so you’ll have to fast-forward or scroll ahead to see him in the latter.

Also see Dean Koontz’s 5 Favorite Books.

From ‘The Art of Fiction No. 135, Don DeLillo’ in Paris Review

“Writing is a concentrated form of thinking. I don’t know what I think about certain subjects, even today, until I sit down and try to write about them.”

via Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 135, Don DeLillo

If you need to leave baggage behind

If you need to leave baggage behind, remember what it looks like, so you don’t pick it up again.

Additional thoughts about healing and personal growth

Continuing some previous thoughts:

Forgiving someone for real damage does not necessarily heal the real damage.

Not all real damage is merely emotional.

If real damage is thought to be merely emotional when it is not merely emotional, then forgiveness will not usher in rapid healing and release.

Some real damage can be a matter of integration — concept, habit, worldview, and pattern, as well as emotions.

Imagine a teen driver accidentally bumping a middle-age cyclist off the side of the road. While the cyclist recovers, he forgives the teen driver, but the cyclist still has to heal.

More to the psychological point of this post, imagine a young man whose vulnerability is exploited by cult recruiters. The young man joins and devotes several years to working in the cult. Eventually, the young man’s eyes are opened to the true nature of the cult. He might be able to forgive the recruiters and leaders. Years of thinking and behaving within the cult’s ways and means, however, make lasting change a difficult process.

Caution flags in healing and personal growth

I’m not going to do much explaining here. I think anyone who might benefit from these will benefit from them as they stand.

♦ Forgiving a person does not make that person safe.

♦ Healing is not a process by which I realize all things are equal.

♦ The goal of healing is not to conclude that everything is equally benign.

♦ As someone else has said, “The purpose of an open mind is to close on something.” In the case of emotional boundaries, sometimes it’s more important to make a decision rather than to exhaust all possible grounds and evidence for making that decision. Goodness knows, there’s no moral relativism in saying, “That movement or person or idea or activity is bad for me.” Others in my social circle might not see things the same way, but I’m not living everyone’s life, just my own.

My journey through alternative values

T.J. Maxx was unsettling. I wasn’t shopping. I was traveling through an alternative universe of value, or through too many alternatives to previously held values. The store provides a place to buy good stuff at low prices, yet each appealing price tag is attached to an unappealing reality about the product: “This used to be considered really valuable. It wasn’t.”

This T.S. Sullivant cartoon, entitled "No Doubt," was published in Life magazine on September 29, 1898.  This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

This T.S. Sullivant cartoon, entitled “No Doubt,” was published in Life magazine on September 29, 1898. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.