Writing Lessons

Know What You Like—And What You Don’t

By Diarmaid MacCulloch | October 27, 2014


I can’t remember receiving any advice that triggered my writing career. I wrote as soon as I could write, relishing the conveyance of ideas and information to others at an improbably early age (I think that I was probably a monstrous child to live with). I do remember, at the age of nine, creating a comic strip in friendly competition with a classmate: although I enjoyed drawing the pictures, they struck me as not nearly so entertaining or funny as the things that I could say in the conversation bubbles, or in the intervening commentary, which soon grew to dwarf the illustrations. So the die was cast. I realized that mine was a restricted gift: the historian’s, not the novelist’s. A day’s attempt to start a novel proved to be an embarrassing failure, and I have never been foolish enough to try again. I admire novelists in the way that I admire architects: I understand much of the process involved in their work, but know that this is not something to try at home. Likewise, the allied word-forms of poetry are not for me. I do what I do, not knowing much about how I do it. I enjoy explaining to others how registers in prose differ, particularly between the written and the spoken word. I know what I don’t like, which is especially the lame, broken-backed, pompous prose that I encounter in TV scripts before I get to work on them. Good prose should have the givenness, the completeness, of good sculpture.

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