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.

Diarmaid MacCulloch is Professor of History of the Church at the University of Oxford and a fellow of the British Academy. His book The Reformation: A History won the Wolfson History Prize (UK) and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

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