Bryan Garner on Words

Some posthumous wisdom on writing from Robert Louis Stevenson

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Bryan Garner

Photo of Bryan Garner by Winn Fuqua.

Garner: What’s the point of these imitations?

Stevenson: It’s this: There always shines beyond the student’s reach his inimitable model. Let him try as he please, he is still sure of failure; and it is a very old and a very true saying that failure is the only high road of success. I must have had some disposition to learn; for I clear-sightedly condemned my own performances. I liked doing them, indeed; but when they were done, I could see they were rubbish.

Garner: Rubbish? What’s your standard for style, then?

Stevenson: We talk of bad and good. Everything is good that is conceived with honesty and executed with communicative ardor. See the good in other people’s work; it will never be yours. See the bad in your own, and don’t cry about it; it will be there always. Try to use your faults; at any rate use your knowledge of them, and don’t run your head against stone walls.

Garner: How much do you think about technique?

Stevenson: Bow your head to technique. Think of technique when you rise and when you go to bed. Forget purposes in the meanwhile. Get to love technical processes, to glory in technical successes; get to see the world entirely through technical spectacles, to see it entirely in terms of what you can do. Then when you have anything to say, the language will be apt and copious.

Garner: Why do you care so much about technique?

Stevenson: There is only one merit in a writer—that he should write well. And only one damning fault—that he should write ill.

Garner: How do you prepare to write something?

Stevenson: When truth flows from a writer, fittingly clothed in style and without conscious effort, it is because the effort has been made and the work practically completed before he sat down to write. It is only out of fullness of thinking that expression drops perfect like a ripe fruit. And when Thoreau wrote so nonchalantly at his desk, it was because he had been vigorously active during his walk. For clearness, compression and beauty of language cannot come to any living creature till after a busy and prolonged acquaintance with the subject at hand.

Garner: Do you compose quickly?

Stevenson: I used to write as slow as judgment. Now I write rather fast. But I’m still a slow study, and I sit a long while silent on my eggs. Unconscious thought is the only method: Macerate your subject, let it boil slow; then take the lid off and look in—and there your stuff is, good or bad.

Garner: Many lawyers just ape each other, using bad old forms and thinking they must use the legalese that judges are accustomed to. Does that seem wise?

Stevenson: Familiarity has a cunning disenchantment. In a day or two it can steal all beauty from the mountaintops, and the most startling words begin to fall dead upon the ear after several repetitions. If you see a thing too often, you no longer see it; if you hear a thing too often, you no longer hear it. Our attention must be surprised. To carry a fort by assault and to gain a thoughtful hearing from the ruck of mankind are feats of about equal difficulty and must be tried by not dissimilar means.

Garner: One last thing, if I may: How important is word choice?

Stevenson: The first merit that attracts in the pages of a good writer, or the talk of a brilliant conversationalist, is the apt choice and contrast of the words employed. It is a strange art to take these blocks, rudely conceived for the purpose of the market or the bar, and by tact of application touch them to the finest meanings and distinctions, restore to them their primal energy, wittily shift them to another issue, or make of them a drum to rouse the passions.

Garner: I wish we had longer. Thank you for your time, Mr. Stevenson.

Stevenson: A pleasure, Mr. Garner.


Bryan A. Garner, editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and author of many books on advocacy and legal drafting, is the distinguished research professor of law at Southern Methodist University. His most recent book is Nino and Me: My Unusual Friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia. Follow on Twitter @BryanAGarner. This article was published in the September 2018 ABA Journal magazine with the title “An interview with Robert Louis Stevenson: Some posthumous wisdom on writing from one of the masters.”



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