Thursday, December 16, 2010

From Heap to Skeleton

Going through some of my late father's books, I found a slim textbook, 'On the writing of English' by George Townsend Warner. It is undated, but published by Blackie & Son after his death in 1916. He was a renowned history teacher at Harrow School, and was the father of Sylvia Townsend Warner, the novelist.

It's a masterpiece of simple explanation - aimed at schoolchildren, it explains how to organise your ideas and write good essays.

His technique is to start by writing down all your thoughts: 'write them all down just as they come'.

This is your Heap, which you have to sort into categories that become a Skeleton. Today we might suggest a brainstorming, followed by a card sort to develop your organising principles, and then your  outline.

For abstract concepts he proposes another familiar technique: 'Try this. Say to yourself: What? Where? When? How? Why? and take a piece of paper.' I wonder if he was the first to come up with this formulation.

And he demonstrates how this works for three different essay topics. Looks like a template to me.

He moves on to talk engagingly about style, and rhetoric. His own style has something of a Mr Chips twinkle in its eye. His 'two great merits' are:
'1. To have something to say.
2. To say it neatly.'

And a word for academics: 'Another product of the cowardly mind is the desire to qualify'.

Which all reminds me of something I once found in a dictionary of quotations, ascribed to Lord Lytton:
'Do you want to get at new ideas? Read old books.
Do you want to get at old ideas? Read new books.'