Advice to Writers, On Style

Writing in Maine


Give Me One Summer“Who was it said ‘style in writing is like good manners in human intercourse’? It reminds me of one of the big writers. Can’t remember which, the resemblance keeps teasing at my mind.”

Give Me One Summer

“What good is poetry when everybody’s moving on?” 

The writer who said it was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, in a series of lectures at the University of Cambridge. These  were published in 1916, when Emilie Loring was learning her craft and read everything she could get her hands on about composition, plot, and style.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote fiction under the pen name, “Q,” but he was best known as a scholar and literary critic. Kenneth Grahame modeled his Wind in the Willows character “Ratty” after him–a rodent with a touch of style who was forever commenting on others’ speech.


But writers sought Quiller-Couch’s counsel, and this is one piece of advice that I’ve taken to heart for myself:

“Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament… ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’”  

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, “On the Art of Writing,” 1916

Samuel Johnson gave the same advice more clearly:

“Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791

It’s a painful practice, but each time I cast away an oh-so-pithy phrase, my work is the better for it. Emilie did the same and replaced wordy phrases with spare, well-selected expressions.

“… all good writers, in short—‘do not anywhere make us feel that we intrude, that this is for our betters. Rather it is true that, in their greatest strokes, there we feel most at home.’”

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

The essential individuality of writers prevents their writing from being anything other than their character and experience allow.

Quiller Couch
“… in their greatest strokes, there we feel most at home.”

Two persons cannot be the authors of the sounds which strike our ear; and as they cannot be speaking one and the same speech, neither can they be writing one and the same lecture or discourse. Quot homines tot sententiae. You may translate that, if you will, ‘Every man of us constructs his sentence differently.’

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

Emilie Loring and Grace Livingston Hill are sometimes mentioned together, as though they wrote the “same” kind of books, but of course they did not–and could not.

Swift Water cover wpr“Do you think that the same thought inserted in both our minds at the same instant would come out the same? It would be colored by our individual philosophy, twisted by our experiences, prejudices, enthusiasms, and emerge shaped by our individual conclusions.”

Swift Water

An eighteenth-century naturalist simplified:

“Writing well consists of thinking, feeling and expressing well, of clarity of mind, soul and taste …. The style is the man himself”

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

Old and New Emilie Loring stories
She expected her characters to create the plot.

When asked how she wrote and if she planned out plots ahead of time, Emilie Loring answered no, that she expected her characters to do that. She created them, set them into a situation, and wrote what they did next.

“The characters are as real and alive to me as you are. I blink wet lashes when their hearts ache, burn with indignation when they burn, laugh with them, and have a lot of fun selecting their clothes.”

Emilie Loring

Occasionally, she’d interrupt, “No. No. You can’t do that.” But she wrote it all down and followed her characters into the next scene. That process, to create characters and then inhabit them, was essential. They bore her imprint, but each character acted as created and could surprise even her.

“You should by an intellectual effort transport yourself into characters, not draw them into yourself.”

“This then is Style. As technically manifested in Literature it is the power to touch with ease, grace, precision, any note in the gamut of human thought or emotion… It comes of endeavouring to understand others, of thinking for them rather than for yourself—of thinking, that is, with the heart as well as the head.”

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch




Blue Hill desk
… and “click,” the story was off again.

Give Me One SummerShe slipped a sheet of cheap yellow paper into the machine. She sent the man to the street and “click” the story was off again. Her cheeks burned, her fingers flew as they kept pace with the thoughts that flooded her mind.

Give Me One Summer



4 thoughts on “Advice to Writers, On Style

    1. I often admire something that another writer does, and I especially pay attention to the order in which information is revealed in a story. When it comes to language patterns, ours are created by so many influences over time that they become a little like fingerprints, and I’m not sure we’re successful when we try to sound like another–or that it’s even a good idea to. “Style” is a funny crossover, because it’s both structure and voice.


  1. I have read Grace Livingston Hill also. There really is no similarity in their work. Just the time period of lasting stories. I truly enjoy your research and comments about Emilie Loring. I read her books every year. Just good writing and, gay courage for the days. Aloha, Pam

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

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