THE Copy Book is an anthology of short passages. They include extracts from fiction and poetry, accounts of historical events, records of social history, political speeches, descriptions of scientific developments, and much else besides. A substantial proportion of them (some 60%) are by ‘real’ authors, that is to say, they are ‘authentic texts’ not written specifically for this website. Authors range from Thucydides and Ovid to St Bede, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen.
Learn by heart those passages that appeal to you. Use them as touchstones of style. As you read for pleasure, you may discover other samples, possibly better ones. Don’t lost sight of them. Add them, in what way you will, to the team chosen for you and let them help you to write straightforward English.
NL Clay, Straightforward English (1949)
These passages can very usefully be studied by those who are looking to improve their own command of straightforward writing in English. There is no great mystery to this analysis. You are simply noticing, noticing perhaps for the first time your own feelings and reactions as you read. Ask yourself ‘How does that scene, speech, or word make me feel? What do I see in my mind’s eye? Why do I feel this way, and see these images? What words or images has the author used to get me to do so?’ Here are some suggestions to help you start noticing.
Read the passage aloud. Do this several times. Are you reading as a character involved in the story, or as a detached observer? Do you find you are reading to yourself, or to a group or person — imaginary or not?
Test out various kinds of emphasis and inflexion, like a professional actor, until you find one that seems right. Pronounce your words naturally, but carefully. Recording yourself can be toe-curling but it can also be a revelation.
Try to capture the passage in a single sentence, preferably no more than 30 words long. See if you can do this without writing anything down.
Paraphrase and Précis
Summarise the passage in no more than 40 words. Then expand it to around 60-80 words. Alternatively, start with 60-80 and pare it down to 30-40. Many passages already have a précis for you to use as a starting point.
Notes to Prose
Make your own notes on the passage, without using whole sentences — as if you were listening to a lecture. Lay your notes aside, then come back to them in a day or two. How much of the original can you reconstruct from your notes? How brief can your notes be while still being effective as a reminder?
Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write by taking a passage and turning it into verse. This made him widen his vocabulary in the quest to match metre and rhyme. He then turned his verse back into prose, and compared the result with the original.
Is the passage in old-fashioned English? How would you make it more modern? Does making it more modern improve its intelligibility? Does it sound better?
Appreciate, Correct, Improve
Take note of words that you don’t know, or are used in ways that surprise you. Note them down, then come back to them in a day or two and use them in your own sentences. Which other words — words you are more familiar with — might he have used? What extra meaning do his words add? Why write ‘fretful’ rather than ‘worried’ or ‘relish’ rather than ‘enjoy’?
Was there anything that made you stumble when sight-reading? How might that have been prevented? Does the punctuation help or hinder your reading? How well has the author used paragraphs to help you read and understand?
What is the writer’s goal in this passage? Does he want to make us laugh, cry, get angry? How does he want us to feel about his events or characters? How does he try to achieve his goal? Does he use words or images designed to manipulate us? Does he highlight or suppress certain things in a way that materially changes how we respond? How open is he about his goal? How successful is he in achieving it?
Who was the author? Is the narrator (the person we hear telling the story) supposed to be the same as the author (the person actually writing it)? How does the author (or the narrator) want us to think of him?
Who was the author writing for? What sort of person do you think he imagined his reader was? Is the person who the author hoped would buy and read his book the same as the person the narrator seems to be talking to? Are you the kind of person the author was expecting as a reader? If not, how might this affect the writer’s success in achieving his goals?
Are there distinct characters in this passage? If so, how does the author give each one a clear identity? Does he use dialect, mannerisms, peculiarities of speech, characteristic phrases? What picture comes into your mind for each one? How much is this influenced by the passage, by your own experiences, or by TV?
For Photographers and Artists
How would you depict the scene? What medium would you choose (e.g. watercolour, black-and-white)? What dress would you have your models wear? What setting would you choose? How would you give speech or feelings a visible form, e.g. by posture, facial expressions?
For Actors and Directors
How would you direct the scene: camera angles, position, dress, backdrop? Which actors would you ideally cast in the parts, and why? If the passage is narrated by an impartial observer, how would you dramatise what he says when there is no direct speech: for example, by writing speech for one or other of the characters, or by ‘show don’t tell’ actions?
What music (if any) would you choose for this scene? Are there any particular instruments or sounds suitable for the characters or for the mood, such as humour, pathos, ceremony, conflict? How would you show when and where the action was taking place, e.g. in the Middle Ages, in France, in the countryside? Is silence truly golden in this case? Or is it a job for the sound effects department?