Brin Jackson, Fantasy writer & daydreamer

The journey of writing, craft, and of connection.

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W. Somerset Maugham on writing without frills

Information on Somerset Maughm. Article found at:

William Somerset Maugham, author of the novels Of Human Bondage (1915) and Cakes and Ale (1930), spent five years studying medicine and served in World War I as both an ambulance driver and a British spy. Yet during all this time he recognized that his one compelling ambition was to be a writer.

“I have never quite got over my astonishment at being a writer,” he observed years later in The Summing Up (1938). “There seems no reason for my having become one except an irresistible inclination.”

But as Maugham discovered, it takes more than desire to become a good writer. When he tried practicing the writer’s craft by imitating the prose of Jonathan Swift and John Dryden, the results were discouraging. “I did not write well,” he said of his early attempts. “I wrote stiffly and self-consciously.”

His breakthrough came only when he was able to accept his inadequacies as a writer. Once he had done that, Maugham observed, he could focus on cultivating his strengths:

I put aside all thought of fine writing. I wanted to write without any frills of language, in as bare and unaffected a manner as I could. I had so much to say that I could afford to waste no words. I wanted merely to set down the facts. I began with the impossible aim of using no adjectives at all. I thought that if you could find the exact term a qualifying epithet could be dispensed with. As I saw it in my mind’s eye my book would have the appearance of an immensely long telegram in which for economy’s sake you had left out every word that was not necessary to make the sense clear. . . .

I discovered my limitations and it seemed to me that the only sensible thing was to aim at what excellence I could within them. I knew that I had no lyrical quality, I had a small vocabulary and no efforts that I could make to enlarge it much, availed me. I had little gift of metaphor; the original and striking simile seldom occurred to me. Poetic flights and the great imaginative sweep were beyond my powers. I could admire them in others as I could admire their far-fetched tropes and the unusual but suggestive language in which they clothed their thoughts, but my own invention never presented me with such embellishments; and I was tired of trying to do what did not come easily to me.

On the other hand, I had an acute power of observation and it seemed to me that I could see a great many things that other people missed. I could put down in clear terms what I saw. I had a logical sense, and if no great feeling for the richness and strangeness of words, at all events a lively appreciation of their sounds. I knew that I should never write as well as I could wish, but I thought with pains I could arrive at writing as well as my natural defects allowed. On taking thought it seemed to me that I must aim at lucidity, simplicity and euphony. I have put these three qualities in the order of the importance I assigned to them.
(The Summing Up, Doubleday, 1938)

In the end, Maugham understood that he would never be considered a first-rate author (though he did believe that he stood “in the very first row of the second-raters”). His style was plain; his insights were rarely profound. Yet in clear, economical prose, he could accurately describe the small details of the everyday world. “Most people cannot see anything,” he once said, “but I can see what is in front of my nose with extreme clearness; the greatest writers can see through a brick wall. My vision is not so penetrating.”

It’s the rare writer who excels at all aspects of the craft. There are masterful stylists who, at bottom, have remarkably little to say. And there are vigorous thinkers whose sentences plod along like the lumbering steps of a draft horse.

As Maugham has shown, becoming a better writer involves confronting our limitations–identifying those qualities that stubbornly resist all our efforts to improve them. But even more important is the next step: building on our strengths.