John Stuart Mill on Good Writing

My love affair with Mill’s autobiography continues. This paragraph from chapter 4 reviews the effect that an editing job he held had on his own writing.

The middle struck me as a bit funny: he notes that some readers found someone else’s style too convoluted; this, in a sentence with eight commas and a colon. I actually love Mill’s constant subordination–it makes his prose exact, but he never overdoes it. Each sentence of his always has a perfect balance between precision and fluidity.

Also, I like the description of good writing elements at the end: the idea of fleshing out the bare bones of composition and creating something “lively and light.”

The time occupied in this editorial work was extremely well employed in respect to my own improvement. The “Rationale of judicial Evidence” is one of the richest in matter of all Bentham’s productions. The theory of evidence being in itself one of the most important of his subjects, and ramifying into most of the others, the book contains, very fully developed, a great proportion of all his best thoughts: while, among more special things, it comprises the most elaborate exposure of the vices and defects of English law, as it then was, which is to be found in his works; not confined to the law of evidence, but including, by way of illustrative episode, the entire procedure or practice of Westminster Hall. The direct knowledge, therefore, which I obtained from the book, and which was imprinted upon me much more thoroughly than it could have been by mere reading, was itself no small acquisition. But this occupation did for me what might seem less to be expected; it gave a great start to my powers of composition. Everything which I wrote subsequently to this editorial employment, was markedly superior to anything that I had written before it. Bentham’s later style, as the world knows, was heavy and cumbersome, from the excess of a good quality, the love of precision, which made him introduce clause within clause into the heart of every sentence, that the reader might receive into his mind all the modifications and qualifications simultaneously with the main proposition: and the habit grew on him until his sentences became, to those not accustomed to them, most laborious reading. But his earlier style, that of the Fragment on Government, Plan of a judicial Establishment, &c., is a model of liveliness and ease combined with fulness of matter, scarcely ever surpassed: and of this earlier style there were many striking specimens in the manuscripts on Evidence, all of which I endeavoured to preserve. So long a course of this admirable writing had a considerable effect upon my own; and I added to it by the assiduous reading of other writers, both French and English, who combined, in a remarkable degree, ease with force, such as Goldsmith, Fielding, Pascal, Voltaire, and Courier. Through these influences my writing lost the jejuneness of my early compositions; the bones and cartilages began to clothe themselves with flesh, and the style became, at times, lively and almost light.

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