Friday, September 30, 2016

How to write an article

Mr. Macaulay describes, with his usual vigour and with more than his usual warmth, the wonderful versatility and beauty of Addison's contributions to the Spectator. “On the Monday,” he says, “we have an allegory as lively and ingenious is Lucian's Auction of Lives; on the Tuesday, an Eastern apologue as richly coloured as the tales of Scherezade; on the Wednesday, a character described with the skill of La Bruyère; in the Thursday, a scene from common life equal to the best chapters in the Vicar of Wakefield; on the Friday, some sly Horatian pleasantry on fashionable follies, on hoops, patches, or puppet-shows; and on the Saturday, a religious meditation, which will bear a comparison with the finest passages in Massillon.” The periodical publications of the present day afford at least an equally singular phenomenon. Certainly we cannot boast of a whole paradise of Addisons; but in all the enormous mass of our daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly newspapers, magazines, and reviews, there is hardly one which does not leave on the mind, at any rate of an unsophisticated reader, a curious impression of smartness and talent. At first sight, and at a little distance, the Brummagem goods have a wonderful resemblance to the real works of art. As there are in a theatre a certain set of conventional arrangements by means of which the requisite effect is produced upon the audience—as the stage slopes upwards from the pit and the footlights throw the light on the actors who walk round in a circle, with their hands on the inside hip and their heads turned over the outside shoulder, in order to give additional effect to a virtuous sentiment or to an emphatic pause—so there are certain conventional arrangements in the literary world, by the proper use of which almost anything may be turned into a striking and pointed remark. Some of these artifices are worth attention. If we were to give advice to a gentleman intending to enter upon the profession of periodical literature, and anxious to obtain eminence, or, at any rate employment in it, with prudent economy of the energies and the mind, our counsel would take something of the following shape.

The different devices by which you may write an article with comfort to yourself, will of course depend almost entirely upon the particular line of business in which you may start. If you should be so fortunate as to form a connexion with the Times, you must study the peculiar contrivances for the economy of labour adopted by that paper, and be very careful not to resort to expedients better suited for less important journals. You must not expect to be entrusted at first with important subjects, but must prepare yourself to handle occasional topics, such as frightful atrocities, or American duels, or second-rate Blue-books. The difficulty which you will have to overcome in these cases is that there is generally nothing to say about them. It shows a very bad state of things when twenty or thirty people spend the night in fighting duels in a railway train. It is very wrong to commit murder. It would be a very good thing to have more roads from St. Paul's to Westminster. But how is a man to make such sentiments fill a column and a quarter? The best plan is not to come to the point too soon. From a third to a half of the article should be preface, the character of which will differ according to the subject. You have, for example, to call attention to an excellent letter which appears in another part of our impression of to-day, upon the Border Ruffians of Kansas. The essential part of your duty is to skim the cream of some three columns of small print; but that will only give you two or three paragraphs at most, and unless it is served up with a certain quantity of original matter, there is a disagreeable air of rechauffé about the whole. Now, if you say simply, “Just see what a set of brutes these fellows are,” you exhaust the subject at once; but if you take an analytical view of it, you may display almost any amount of knowledge and fine writing. For example, the Border Ruffians were in a great rage. Various other people have been occasionally enraged. Count up all the different kinds of rage, and conclude by saying that the rage of the Border Ruffians is worse than all of them put together. It will heighten the effect if you contrast the different kinds of rages pretty sharply. Thus you might say—“We have heard of the rage of the Berserkers, amongst the Danes; we have heard of Mr. Pendennis ‘cussing and damning upstairs and downstairs'; we have heard of the rage of Satan when Dunstan caught him with the red-hot tongs; we have heard of the rage of a railway passenger waked by the guard's treading on his gouty toe and asking for his ticket; we have heard of St. Augustine's anger against Pelagius, and of Mr. Chowler's fury against Sir Robert Peel, and of the feelings of the shareholders of the Eastern Counties Railway, and of the sentiments of a Red Indian who has lost all his squaws and part of his scalp. But never did we realize the full extent of the passion of which human nature is capable, till we read the very remarkable letter about the Border Ruffians of Kansas which appears in another part of our columns, and to which we refer our readers for further information.” If your subject, is one of a tamer character—let us say the report of a Commission for examining into the Ecclesiastical Courts—you must begin even further off the main subject. “When Nabuchodonosor, King of Assyria, was on his deathbed”— or “It is Herodian, if we are not mistaken, to whom we owe the ingenious apologue of the man who wished that the black-pudding might stick to his wife's nose"—or some other sentence, as the American poet says, “combining moral truth with phrases such as strikes”—will do for a beginning; and you may be pretty sure that, sooner or later, you can work it round to the matter in hand. Thus, how would Nabuchodonosor's feelings have been embittered in his last moments if he had had ecclesiastical courts in all the provinces of his empire, and had known that his executors would have to prove his will in each of them! And how obvious it is to say, that if the black-pudding story had been suggested to Lord Bacon when he was writing on the wisdom of the ancients, he would have seen that it was emblematical of the engrafting of the cumbrous ecclesiastical machinery upon a system with which it had no natural connexion.

But you will in all probability have to content yourself with something far beneath the Times. Perhaps the Standard or Morning Herald may be in want of a contributor. If so, you will still have to accommodate yourself to the genius loci. Prefaces would probably be unsuitable under the circumstances. Ars longa, vita brevis, must be your motto. You have a great deal of pain, to give, and a prodigiously strong impression to create, and much room to do it in. You must diffuse what, in the Times, would have been a preface, over a number of parentheses; and you may do a good deal by printing every four lines in a separate paragraph, and by a proper use of italics and small capitals. Thus, Mr. Gladstone has made a speech. You may treat him thus:
“Mr. Gladstone has made another speech. It is because he has got nothing better to do, and is out of place. He used to make speeches at the Union, at Oxford (which is now a semi-Popish assembly), where he got a degree by his improper familiarity with the indecent heathenism of Plato.
“He was a friend of the traitor Peel, who made speeches too, and we all know what happened to him. Not that we wish to be presumptuous in judging our neighbours, because that is wrong; but we cannot help saying that what is a mercy to some may be a judgment on others, and as the great and good King William fell from his horse for his own good, so, &c. &c." This would lead up to the Revolution of 1688, which would give an opportunity of calling Mr. Macaulay a “flashy so-called historian," comparing the English and French Revolutions, and making many other interesting and original remarks.

Half a loaf is better than no bread, and you may have to go to the Morning Advertiser. Under such circumstances, your task will be a good deal lighter. There is a proverb well known amongst schoolboys, which in that event you would do well to remember: “When you tell a lie, tell a good one.” You may lead off, for example, in the following startling manner, with good effect: “At the approaching sessions of the Old Bailey, bills will be sent before the Grand Jury, charging Palmerston and other members of the Government with high treason. It is all very well for an effete aristocracy to sneer at this, but we know what we say, and why we say it. We did not sit up with three of the most eminent Old Bailey attorneys till the small hours this morning for nothing. P.'s sentence will probably be commuted to penal servitude. We suppose they won't put him to hard labour at his time of life; but won't the hearts of loyal Britons swell within them to see him darning old stockings, and making out the other convicts' washing-bills, in a grey jacket with a yellow badge on his arm, and a pair of baggy breeches! Look out, George Grey! It may be your turn next. We know where you were Wednesday last, when your flunkey told our man you'd gone to chapel. Did not we see a well-known Russian spy changing roubles for sovereigns at a money-changer's in Threadneedle-street? Men of England! think of this.”

You will remember that, though the vocation of this paper is distinctly secular, it has also its religious side; but if you practise the style of writing which we have indicated upon political subjects, you will soon be able, though it may at first be a little difficult, to write with sufficient vigour and warmth for the theological department.

Perhaps your tastes may lead you to prefer literature to politics. If so, the field is a wide one, and you will occasionally write magazine articles, besides contributing to newspaper criticisms. In magazine articles, one of the great points to be attended to is the sauce with which your dish is seasoned. Some of these sauces are so well known that a quantity may be made at a time, to be used as it is wanted. Suppose, for example, you should want to write in Blackwood. You must begin by getting up your Scotch, which you may easily do from the Waverley novels. It does not much matter what the subject is—half a page of Scotch to begin with, and half a page to end with, is always welcome. Suppose you want to write about colonization. You must put at the head of the article two such words as Tinkler and Triptolemus, printed in capitals, and prefix them, or abbreviations of them, to alternate sentences, thus:
“TINKLER. Hech, sirs, it's a cauld nicht.
TRIPT. Ou, it's an awsome nicht; the thermometer stan's at 26°, and ye ken the freezing-point's thirty-twa.
TINKLER. Mix yoursel a noggin' o' whusky, lad, and tell us your mind on the subject o' cawlineesation.”
And then you may go on in your natural style; but you had better be a little Scotch, if you mean to be witty. It is worth remembering that you must always contrast theory and practice to the disadvantage of theory, when you write in Blackwood. It is a topic which does to end with.

Perhaps milk-and-water is more to your taste than whiskey-and-water. If so, you will find a large market for your wares in London. A man writes a History of the Revolution of 1848, which is simply an impertinence from end to end—a mere mass of silly, commonplace, gratuitous assertions, and babyish wit, grounded on a blind admiration of everything English, and an equally blind contempt for everything foreign, unless it happens for the moment to be successful and popular. You may review it somewhat as follows:–
“This is a very useful and unpretending contribution to literature. It is full of that practical good sense which is level to the comprehension of practical men; if it has a fault, it perhaps consists in a rather exaggerated, though honest, prejudice in favour of English customs and principles. The writer's views are, however, abundantly confirmed by the result. All the principles which he admires so warmly, and advocates so well, have triumphed, in spite of the shallow theorists who condemned them. The author has judiciously abstained from encumbering his pages by reference to authorities; and, indeed, his statements are of such an indisputable nature as to render them, in a great measure, superfluous. He is possessed of a very lively wit. We were particularly pleased by his comparison of Athens to the wick of a candle, because it is surrounded by Greece (grease), and by his remark that the conduct of two noble lords in a celebrated political conjuncture resembled a conversation which he himself overheard in the West Indies, where a negro excused his idleness by saying that he had been helping his fellow-slave, who, upon inquiry, was said to have been doing nothing!"
To this amount of original matter you may add perhaps a column and a half of extracts.

The Comic papers afford a fine field, if your genius lies in that direction, and they have the great advantage of giving writers very little trouble; for the saving of thought, and time which may be effected in this department, by a good knowledge of the working rules of the business, is almost incredible. There are a certain set of doctrines which a Comic paper holds about the different members of the Government. One of them makes bad puns, another is deadly lively, a third is stupid, a fourth insignificant; and by bringing in each man in his character, young always knock up a lively article on the dullest subject S. thing has gone '' at the War Office. Head your column: “Carrying on the War;” then, in italics-[Scene, Downing-street.—Pam picking his teeth before the fire -- enter Bernal Osborne, smoking, with his hat one side.]
“BERN. OSB.—How do, Pam? Cold day.
“PAM.—I believe you, my boy. You've made a mess of that business about the 86th, Bernal.
“BERN. OSB.—It was all the fault of that psalm-singing ass, George Grey. He's as little good as Cranny himself.
“PAM.—Aye, the Grey mare's not always the better horse &c. &c.

It is not everybody who has enough vivacity and knowledge of high life for this kind of thing. You may be reduced to Punch. The practice here is very simple. Virtuous indignation, spiced with puns, will almost always make an article -- three growls and a jingle is the short rule for their manufacture. You are to be funny about the Coronation at Moscow, and have been furnished with an illustrated initial W to begin with. It represents a Russian executioner, leaning back one way, applying a knout shaped like an inverted V to the back of a woman leaning the other way. You must therefore begin with “Well,” or some other interjection, and then go on thus:-- "The fellow who succeeded Nicholas has been crowned at Moscow. Ah! Britain’s aristocracy dutifully dances before the Russian bear. Perhaps they do it all the better by thinking how he made the Polish nuns dance. Verily, great is the virtue of a crown. How much better it is than a mere vulgar five-shilling piece! Alexander, look you, shall bid yon fair lady to his feast, and she shall cringe before the fellow, and worship his jewels and his knouts, and—“The only difficulty about this kind of thing is to know how to stop. You will find this style useful also in writing for Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, so that it is well worth cultivating.

If you attend faithfully to these instructions, and enter into the spirit of them, you can hardly fail to secure, sooner or later a permanent footing in the profession which you have chosen.

Saturday Review, October 25, 1856.

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