13 Writing techniques (non-fiction)
The Review section of Saturday’s Guardian newspaper has a short column called ‘The books that made me.’
Interviewed for it in December 2020, the journalist Craig Brown said The Quest for Corvo had ‘opened his mind to the underused tricks available to writers of non-fiction’.
It’s rather an extraordinary book, and has an unusual structure. But if I understood what Brown was referring to, here are 13 of its ‘tricks’.
They teach us lessons about writing style, sentence construction, and grammar rules (they can be broken – sometimes). I hope it gives you food for thought, or just to enjoy reading.
(My page references are to the Penguin Classics edition, 2018.)
1.) Verbs needn’t always come early in a sentence
After the war he became a dealer, in a small way, in a rare and unusual books; and by this means, a small pension, and the legacy of 100 pounds a year which his friend Ross had left him, he lived. (2)
Frustration and poverty had been the condition of his early years as of his last; tutorships, odd jobs, and charity were the actual lot of the dreamer who (in his dreams) had ruled the world. (16)
Rolfe was no student. He gave no real indication of any real piety beneath the surface – if there was any ‘beneath’. No earnestness and fineness of purpose, no discernible interest in the souls of others – so we judged. (64)
2.) Lists of things can be made (really) interesting
He would buy salmon for his supper, carry it home greased paper, and cook it himself; but it must be scotch, and the prime cut. Bread and cheese would suffice for his lunch, but the cheese must be a choice stilton. Modern beer was his despair; and he abhorred in equal measure imported meat, and credit accounts. In the matter of wine he was less exacting: he relied upon a reasonable Val de Penas, which he brought from a shipper friend, and drank at any hour that pleased him. (2–3)
3.) Commas in a sentence – need there be a maximum?!
He expressed himself in that haunted book; and his Self was something beyond the ungrateful beneficiary that so many, in daily life, found him to be, something beyond the unscrupulous, egocentric, homosexual pretender of Aberdeen, Hollywell, and Rome. (145)
4.) Simple, effective repetition
He would not take the half-share, he would not take the whole, he would not allow his name to appear on the books will, he would not say what he wanted. (199)
There was good reason for his excitement. In an expression that used to be popular, he had an elective affinity for Italy, a fostered devotion for her sunshine, her history and her speech. (184)
The new that he had little or no money, and that without money he could not stop in Venice; yet in Venice he seemed determined to remain. (189)
5.) Add-on statement to the end of a sentence
The feline figure of Rose, sore, suspicious, ready to take offence at any slighting word, immovably convinced of the justice of his cause, moves alive in front of us; we can hear his voice. (5)
6.) Good use of a colon and semi-colon
Throughout all the letters one purpose was visible: they were an entreaty to the recipient to bring his wealth into a market where it would bring value. (11)
My white-haired visitor had a very interesting story to tell; for he had known Rolfe intimately, and, as I found later, nearly everyone who knew Rolfe thought him the most remarkable man of his acquaintance. (22)
7.) Letters and their extracts can be introduced in flowing ways .. .
Finally, I was delighted to receive the following: (52)
By lucky chance, O’Sullivan had been a more or less regular correspondent for mine for years, and I was able to get details without difficulty: (58)
The deadlock was a second time broken in unexpected fashion: (106)
But that proposal was of no avail, and he was soon as tart as ever: (110)
These letters are for the most part friendly in tone, but at the least transgression beyond the expected the claws show: (138)
Fortunately, some letters exist which give Benson’s side of this unlucky squabble: (177)
I was almost frightened as I opened it. (226)
8.) Negatives can be expressed in all sorts of ways
He had found his way to Wales, how or why I knew not; he had become a writer; and, four years after the end of his adventures in Aberdeen, he had endured the newspaper attack. (47)
Yet somehow he had met squalls at Oscott, which he had left hurriedly; those squalls clearly not severe enough to deprive him of the chances of ordination, or he would never have been sent to Rome. (47)
He did me the honour of making me a Cardinal, not because we were intimate or friendly – we were not – not because of anything unusual in my character or abilities – there is not – but I imagine he saw something in me that satisfied his artistic sense, though what that could be I myself am utterly unable to divine. (65)
Such hope as remained to me rested on the unusual beauty of Rolfe’s written manuscripts, which, judging by those I had seen, were not likely to be thrown away by anyone with eyes in his head. (238)
9.) Such elegant phrasing!
But drawing and enjoyment counted with him before Latin exercises, though he was well grounded in classical studies, and proved himself a proficient scholar. (38)
The facts of infancy may be vital when they refer to a prodigy such as Mozart, interesting when relevant to a rebel such as Shelley, valuable when they show the growth for a man out of his place, as Poe; but in Rolfe’s case I felt that his childhood was by much the least interesting part of his life. (46)
Forms, manners, colours, sounds, shapes, and, beyond, a region of vague and uninteresting shadows – a sort of spiritual and intellectual myopia – there, I hold, you have the key Rolfe. (65)
As to what a measure of this he has already achieved, it would be unfitting of me, as his friend, to give an opinion. What I wish to dwell upon – and I speak with intimate knowledge of the whole of his career – is the unfaltering devotion with which he has given himself up to his work. (40)
But on the subject of the Aberdeen Press attack, which had bee n copied in to other newspapers, Mr Rolfe came very near warmth in his contempt. (39)
10.) Sentences don’t always need a verb
Although he was never a member of the university, he had passed somehow or other a good deal of time at Oxford, and he had what used to be know as the ‘Oxford accent’ to the extreme. A low musical voice. Very charming manners once his timidity was broken down. (58)
A word or two of my personal views concerning Rolfe. (65)
11.) Add supense to your sentence
Priests in general he had a poor opinion of, and he spoke with scorn of the kind of conversation common to their gatherings – particularly of ‘priests’ stories’ of a certain shade of blue. (125)
All through my Quest to Corvo chance helped astonishingly; it came to my aid now. Grant Richards, into the well of whose memory I plunged frequent buckets, recollected as an unimportant detail the name of Sholto Douglas as that of a friend of Rolfe’s. (128)
To console me, however, for a disappointment perhaps too bluntly expressed, he placed in my hands those letters to Rolfe returned after their disagreement. (130)
12.) Links between sentences – use a repetition!
… these things shocked me into anger and pity. Pity; for behind the arguments of ugliness of these boasts and offers, these letters told a harrowing story of a man sliding desperately downhill …(12)
13.) Sentences can be super-long (sometimes) c. 150 words!
But George Arthur Rose, suffering from pain as from a personal affront, sitting in his low, shabby brocade armchair, with a drawing-board stilted on his knee, and his little yellow cat sleep on the tilted board; with two publisher’s dummies out his hand, … ; who counts the split infinitives in the day’s newspaper Wong while he dines on soup, …; who carefully preserves the ends of his cigarettes so that he may break them up and make a fresh cigarette when he has sufficient quantity; whose mantelpiece holds, with other queer things, and cards of five literary agents …; who exists in terrified anticipation of the postman’s knock; this man starts to instant life in Fr. Rolfe’s pages, for the best of all reasons because he was Fr. Rolfe himself. (4–5)