March 17, 2011



You chose a great example; it's a real pleasure to look closely at a paragraph of Greene's writing, and you've done a really good job of highlighting how his word choices are doing the work. Thanks for this.

PS. Now I might have to go and read The End of the Affair. Again.

M. Cunningham

What an effective and unconventional lesson idea. Thanks so much for sharing this, Mark.

Susan D. Anderson

As I work on perhaps the tenth revision of my novel, having (perhaps) resolved most structural, story and character issues, choosing the right words to build a line, a sentence, is my lovely, grueling need and obsession. I feel sometimes that the words are breathing me, or that I am singing them. They have so much to convey! They are all we have.

Susan D. Anderson

James D. Sanderson

Great idea for teaching literature. Thanks for the post. Jim


Your "inferior" rewrite doesn't just choose weaker words; it also eliminates words. And yet you value concision when you praise Greene for using "continually" instead of a description.

"People were continually coming in" is no more vivid than "people kept coming in". (And no one needs to be told that papers lie "flat" on a table, etc.) Also, who's to say Greene couldn't have written a short description interesting enough to replace the whole "newspaper" bit?

Anyway, aren't both versions equally "workmanlike" compared to many a shorter passage from Dante, even in a poorly-worded, workmanlike translation?

Writers don't rise from amateur workmanship to artful mastery by skipping things like descriptions in favor of pseudo-literary long-windedness.

Writers rise by learning to transcend mere word-choice and discern whether they've said anything interesting. Or so it seems to this amateur workman.



One of the things I tell my students is that there is no "correct" way to do anything - reading and writing are personal and open to interpretation, and so one must allow for differences of opinion. As I certainly allow for yours.

That said, I find much in your comment to be wrongheaded, and it suggests to me that you are, at least, an amateur workman as a reader. I can't speak to you as a writer.

To begin, I don't prize concision in and of itself, nor do I suggest that I do. I do say that the the right single word is better than many weaker words. If you can't see the difference with and without "continually," if you can't discern its active impact on a sentence, I'm not sure I can do much to help you. And as for "flat," I think there are plenty of ways a paper can lie on a table - in a pile or heap; pages askew; folded in half. Flat is a precise descriptor that tells us more about the man doing the laying than the paper itself, a man who is precise, fussy and more than a little obsessive.

Finally, it's simply silliness to invoke Dante. I suppose we can compare everyone to Dante and Shakespeare, find them wanting and go home.

The rest of your post, when it isn't trading in obvious banality (be interesting!), is sophistry, positing things I've never suggested. In the end, writers rise from thinking about every single word, whether their own or another author's. The lessons we draw are obviously up to us, but I assure there's more to learn from Greene than "Read Dante."


This approach really interests me - and it answers some of the (to my mind) ridiculous conjectures about whether or not writing can be 'taught' that always swirls around creative writing courses. You are so right to suggest that attentive writing is entwined with attentive reading.


Actually, the conjectures swirl, not 'swirls'. I need a writing course!



You reduce "saying something's more crucial than word-choice" to "be interesting" & name-call it "banal".

I cited Dante, & the issue of wording/translation (which you ignore) not to say "Greene means read Dante" but to show the above point with one you might rank over Greene. (If I cite Carter Dickson, I just give you more ammo for insulting my reading skills.)

I agree: a good word beats many bad ones.

But don't you also claim many "right" words beat fewer "workmanlike" equivalents, even if bloating a book mortals must read?

Concision (like "saying something" & word-choice) isn't all, but isn't it part of a good writer or reader's calculations?

John Pappas

I present passages like this and their rewritten counterparts to my high school students, although I've never given them this particular passage. This exercise really does get them to think critically about diction, idiom, character, pacing, tone, etc. There's a great book by W. D. Snodgrass that does this with poetry called "De/Compositions." He presents a poem by Shakespeare, Stevens, Williams, etc. and then next to it a poem he "decomposes" based on the original. It really highlights the artistry and style of the poet, and the reasoning behind the choices they make.

R B Ries


I'm new to the site and I have to say I'm appalled at the unprofessional way in which you responded to a dissenting commenter. Whatever happened to civil discourse? When presented with a case of mild disagreement, you tell your opponent he's boring, unintelligent, an unskilled reader, and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.

I came here looking for some reasonable discussions about my favorite passion (literature). I leave wondering if such a place exists on the Internet.


R.B., I'm sorry to have disappointed you. I was responding in kind to what I felt was an unnecessarily belligerent comment from James. If you take the time to peruse the archives, you'll find that TEV is, in fact, quite a civil place. Of course, teh internets is a big place, so if you find TEV wanting, you are encouraged to continue your search.


James, I can't really make out what you're saying in your follow up post; but I would suffice to say that according to your formulation of "concision," we'd have no Proust, no Joyce, no Tolstoy. But given your giveaway adjective "bloated," I'm not sure you'd consider that a bad thing. Length and bloat are not synonymous. You remind me of a former blogger friend of mine who would chastise short books for not being long books; he couldn't fathom that short books have their own brief (no pun intended) and they function differently than long books. In the obverse, you seem to fault longer books for not being shorter books. It's not a position one can gain any purchase with.

And your Dante/translation point remains too opaque to comment on. Though I did, in fact, address your invocation of Dante.

I hope this is sufficiently civil to heal R.B's wounded sensibilities.


This reminds me of an English class I took in Alaska when I was in high school. The class was devoted entirely to the subject of style in writing. We were given passages from essays and stories, and told to rewrite them in different ways (e.g., change all active to passive; eliminate all adverbs; change the POV, etc.). I found it very illuminating and helpful. What it taught me is that each style has its own value and role to play, if you're clever enough to see it. "Flat" writing, for example, can be exactly what you need for certain purposes. It's a style that's often been used in noir literature, for example, to bring out the banality of violence. So I have to agree with TEV on the broader issue. I'll never write like Dante, so I just don't worry about that.



Glad you're getting back to your writing.

It's a great life, even when nobody beats a path to our door.

R B Ries


At your suggestion I did peruse your archive and found this post of yours:

"I am all for thoughtful disagreement and debate.

What I will not abide, and will continue to delete, are comments that are little more than name-calling. Comments that are needlessly rude or pointlessly flip. Comments that are nothing more disembodied snark, that take cheap shots at me or my other readers."

Interesting that you hold your commenters to much higher standards than yourself.

Anyway, thanks for the response.

Will Amato

Nice, Mark!


I will read as many of these posts as you will write.


I read the debate between James and Mark, agreed more with Mark, though James did, I thought, make some valid points about wordiness. As pointed out by Mark, a lot has to do with rhythm, words like "continually" are conducive to that. It's the right mix of gloss and particulars that make painting a scene so tricky. Why we keep touching up our stories, our manuscripts.

Michael Larson

I'm a huge fan of Graham Greene myself but it seems that, at least in the literary circles I travel, Greene is looked down on. It's true that he did write some fairly commercial books, but his 'serious' works are amazing - especially in terms of how their narratives. Does anyone know why Greene is always considered somewhat second rate?

Also, among Greene's works that I've read, one mu favorites was "The Quiet American." However, I recognize that this novel contains an element which is seen something of faux pas in contemporary literature. Namely, the first person relates a murder mystery to the reader from a point of telling situated after the murder. The narrator knows who committed the crime, but this is not revealed until the end of the book, when comes in as the climax. Serious writers I know of generally see this kind of withholding of obviously vital information by a first person narrator as a cheap trick that has no place in literature. Yet, in spite of this, I can't help but enjoy that book. It successfully mixes war, journalism, a kind of travel writing, a captivating and fast moving narrative, and some serious social and political thought. Hell, I even kind of like the ending. But I can't put my finger on why. Does anyone out there have an opinion on this? Does anyone hate the book or love it? How do you find the trick I referred to? Why? Why? Why?


I too am an admirer of Graham Greene, and came to him via Paul Theroux. He seems to be highly thought of by other writers, and his influence can be read across continents and languages.

I haven't come across him being looked down upon. Perhaps particular books here and there, but, in general, it seems to me his reputation is intact.


Reading this, reminded me about those sweet years when I was a student. Your article made me so damn melancholic.. :( I wish I could turn back time, at least for one day..

A. Jay Adler

I believe unsettled opinion about Greene may stem from his early choice to categorize some of his works as "entertainments" and the controversial nature of his evolving politics, to which many attribute his never having won the Nobel, an award he deserved.

If Mark was a tad prickly in response to James, it was probably because James was haughtily dismissive without the insights to support it. Be haughty or be off the mark, but both together invite trouble. For instance, "kept coming in" is euphonically clipped and clumsy in contrast to "were continually coming in," which streams. "Kept" also has a connotation of persistent application inappropriate to the description. Mark defended the newspaper's lying "flat" very well. It also conveys a sense of the paper's being spread upon the table.

"Concision" is a value to be balanced with others - vividness, for instance - in conveying the requirements of the thought, the sense, the image, the moment. And "pseudo" placed before "literary" or "intellectual" when offering a dissent is a sure sign of a troubled argument.

Finally, it seems clear to me that none of what R.B. quotes from Mark as disfavored commenting - "pointlessly flip....nothing more [than] disembodied snark... cheap shots" - applies to the pointed replies Mark made to James. "Rude" R.B. is entitled to feel, for himself, applies.

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