I knew a writing teacher whose first question to a student was always, Do you keep a notebook when you read? However one answered, his next question was, What are you reading? Much was implied in that second interrogation, because it assumed one was surely reading something at the moment. And it wasn’t good when one hesitated in replying.
This connection between notebook and reading was an attempt to teach the lesson of slowing down. Modern culture moves inhumanly fast, and we often unknowingly content ourselves with the idea that getting the big idea of something is to understand it. Language conveys thought, though, through the careful choice and arrangement of words, and the possibilities of composition are dizzying. This makes the project of linguistically moving immaterial ideas from mind to mind a quite complicated affair, and that is why aspiring writers understand the need to establish a daily routine of private reading to study closely the sentences accomplished writers have composed. It is not possible—we can state it, in fact, as a principle—to improve one’s writing without reading, slow and reflective reading that keeps an eye on the structure and an ear to the sound of certain sentences that have arrested our attention. Mastery of the art of writing depends, as do all arts, on both knowing the principles and seeing those principles demonstrated in the work of other serious practitioners.
In order to slow ourselves down and not miss the opportunity to learn by such close observation, it is helpful to keep what is called a commonplace book, a record of one’s private reading in which we transcribe extracts of passages we have read, vocabulary that is new or merely recognizably familiar to us, and brief notes for further reading on a topic. The commonplace book need not be an elaborately bound and self-conscious volume; a modest, serviceable notebook will work just as well as a place to transcribe (always in quotation marks and always citing author, title, and page number) a sentence that we judge particularly well written and effective. And since we have agreed that going slowly is our goal, we can understand that it is in the transcribing, the unhurried and mindful copying down of a sentence or passage, that another author’s choices of structure and vocabulary can make their way into our own habits. Words and sentence designs that are new to us will come to our service to communicate just the right shade of meaning we need to convey, and as a result we will become more confident in composing sometimes shorter but more powerful sentences, and sometimes longer yet well-balanced ones. Seeing what others do well gives us the nod to do what they do.
As to acquiring a larger vocabulary, one simple technique is to place an “x” in the margin at the line where we have found a word that is either completely unfamiliar or perhaps only vaguely recognizable to us. Often we can infer the meaning of the word from the context of what we are reading, and if that is the case, it is better probably to make a notation like this in the margin and not interrupt our reading to look up its meaning in a dictionary. But the time must come when we have to gather up the words we have noted and transcribe them to our commonplace book. Then we turn to a dictionary and establish their meaning and note some basic grammatical information about them, including their etymology.
We like to think that writing is solitary work, and that is often true in regard to the physical circumstances of the activity—the quiet room or the secluded cabin. But writing always ultimately involves someone else, even if that other one is, strange to say, ourselves. It is, I mean, always pressing the inward outward—expressing in form what we discern in reflection. We might call the art of writing, then, an informed discernment, and to master that delicate art takes time and attention both.