The Writer’s Art, by James J. Kilpatrick, 240 pages, $14.99 (paperback)
Writing is carpentry; it is the craft of joining words together. The construction of a good solid sentence is no more a matter of instinct than the putting together of a dovetailed drawer. Writing is a skill; at higher levels of writing it becomes an art [emphasis added],” says James J. Kilpatrick in his timeless treasure, The Writer’s Art. A fountain of good information and good advice, this opus is an instruction manual, a guide for writers. And writers would do well to heed the advice; because to follow Kilpatrick’s guide is to place oneself on the fast-track to the mastery of the aforementioned art.
James J. Kilpatrick was a writer, author, journalist and newspaper columnist in the latter half of the 20th century. He served as the editor of The Richmond News Leader during the 1950s and early 1960s, and his nationally syndicated column, “A Conservative View,” was carried by hundreds of newspapers for nearly 30 years.
The Writer’s Art, William F. Buckley Jr. writes in the book’s foreword, “is not only the best book of its kind I have ever experienced . . . it is the most compelling reading about writing I have ever seen.” Paying due respect to Mr. Buckley’s own book on writing, The Right Word, which is also a jolly good read, I must nevertheless wholeheartedly agree. This book is an essential for all who write, whether of necessity, occupation, or avocation.
From approaches to writing, to thoughts on the use of grandiloquent words, to things we writers “ought” and “ought not to be doing,” to 100 of his personal “crotchets,” Kilpatrick is clear, eloquent, thoughtful, original, and witty every step of the way. Upon completion, writers will invariably feel within them a compelling urge to sit at the keyboard and whet their craft.
My favorite piece of advice from Kilpatrick was his simple, yet certainly not simplistic or insignificant, answer to the question “How does one get to be a writer?”: “The first two requirements are these—to read insatiably, and to write incessantly.” I will vouch for this advice any day of the week.
The “Things We Ought ” and “Ought Not To Do” chapters are replete with wisdom and gems that writers may instantly employ. His chapter 6, “The Tools We Live By,” is a splendid bibliography of, inter alia, dictionaries, books on words, books on syntax and grammar. For example, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is a brief little book that every writer should have on their desk (perhaps placed just next to The Writer’s Art). So useful, in fact, are these recommended tools, I myself found it difficult to abstain from navigating Amazon.com until each were added to my cart.
The immense pleasure and invaluable advice I, as a writer, received from the reading of this book make it extremely difficult to criticize; nevertheless, I am of the opinion that it is a thing I “ought to do,” if you will. With regard to “the author’s Hundred Years’ War against Unusual Words,” as William F. Buckley Jr. describes it in the foreword, I break with Kilpatrick and the establishment and find myself firmly on the side of Buckley and the unpopular rebellion of logophiles.
Kilpatrick writes: “When we feel an impulse to use a marvelously exotic word, let us lie down until the impulse goes away.” The argument, moreover, goes something like this: If the object of writing is to communicate, then why undermine that noble endeavor by tripping readers on unusual or exotic words? To which Buckley persuasively asks: Why, then, do such words exist in the first place?
All words exist because, at one time or another, there was, to use an economist’s term, a “felt need” for them. To forswear the use of words because someone might find them unusual is to, ironically, go against the author’s own advice in The Writer’s Art: “We ought constantly to search for the right word [emphasis added].”
That is to say, if one uses an unusual word for mere exhibitionism, then, I concede of course, it is unwarranted; but if such a word is the right word, then to abstain from using it, in my judgment, is to unreasonably deprive oneself of the richness of the English language—a deprivation I myself am unwilling to endure.
Other than the minor, forgivable sin of searching for egalitarianism in the written word, The Writer’s Art is damn-near flawless. If any readers are writers themselves, they should know that to write without this volume on their desk is to be like a carpenter who shows up for work without a tool belt.
— Ross Dubberly is Book Editor of The Arch Conservative