Literature is Not a Mere Science, to be Studied; but an Art, to be Practised



The word "literature" means, literally, letters; and we use the word "letters" itself in the sense of "literature" in the phrase, "a man of letters". Literature is the written word. But all that is written or printed is not literature; for the name of "literature" is given only to memorable thought finely and nobly expressed in words. It is good style that makes a piece of writing, literature.

In the sentence quoted above as the title, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch uses the word "literature" in the sense of writing. He tells that good litera­ture is to be studied, but also that it is to be practiced as an art. That is, that we, if we have any gift of writing, should try to express our thoughts finely in words. We may, thus, make literature.

Writing is an art; and, just because it is an art, it has to be learnt. Every art has its own medium of expression, and its own rules. The sculptor works in stone and metal; the painter in line and colour; the musician in pure sound; and the writer in words. And, as those other artists must learn, and sedulously practise their arts before they can adequately express themselves in statues, pictures and music, so must the would-be maker of literature, the writer.

The whole object, indeed the raison d'etre, of speaking and writing is communication. We want to communicate our thoughts to the minds of others; and we can do it only by means of words. So we have to learn how to use words in such a way as to convey our meaning to others clearly, simply, directly, briefly and vigorously.

From this point of view, style in writing is nothing but the skilful handling of words. As Cardinal Newman said, "Style is thinking out into words".

Good prose may be described as "the right words in the right order"; for the handling of words in writing consists of the right choice of words, and the right arrangement oil words. Choice implies thought and care-something delib­erate. A careful writer will choose his words, and will not be content till he finds the one word that will accurately and clearly express his thought.

One secret of clear writing is clear thinking; the other secret is the careful choice of the words that will best express the thought. For the formation of a direct, simple, brief, vigorous and lucid style, these rules should be followed: Prefer the familiar word to the far­fetched; prefer the concrete word to the abstract, prefer the single word to the circumlocution; prefer the short word to the long.

As to the right arrangement of words: Prefer the short sentence to the long; prefer the simple construction to the elaborate; prefer the direct construction to the roundabout. To follow these rules is not easy, and it calls for much practice; for "the apparently simplest form of construction is by far the most difficult".