Hints to a Young Writer—A Private Letter put in Print.
Brooklyn, Feb. 20th, 1853
DEAR W.—I like your diligence and proficiency in writing so well, that I will accept your invitation to criticize—hoping to be able to offer some suggestions whereby you may improve.
I think you have the fault of most young writers, and one which I have had occasion to correct in myself, viz. that of making too much of your own sensations. I notice in your descriptions of scenes and events you are rather apt to bring in the expression 'I felt,' 'we felt,' so and so. To persons of lively temperament and strong susceptibilities that is very natural, but it seriously mars the picture when it comes into the hands of readers. We cannot make others feel like us by telling how we felt on any occasion; the only way is to reproduce in our description the things and circumstances that made us feel, and then, if the occasion was worthy of it, the effect will be produced in our readers, that we desire. This you will observe is the secret of effect in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The author does not attempt to force you into sympathy with Uncle Tom by a display of his feelings, but leads you step by step into all his circumstances, so that you see the man and live with him, and of course involuntarily feel with him. To attempt to raise sympathy in any other way, is 'felt' to be an intrusion which we involuntarily resist. The more we can ignore ourselves and let our feelings vent themselves in expressing simply the scene that we were in, the more life there will be in our description, and the truer its effect. To turn aside from that, to give one's own private experience, breaks in upon the reader's attention, detracts from the force of his picture, and generally savors disagreeably of egotism. I have a good while since discarded altogether the words 'I feel,' 'we felt,' &c., from public writing. They sound Methodistical and 'Pecksniffian;' and it would be a good rule, I think, for young writers at least, to express themselves by some other word.
I think you will find no instance in the New Testament where those words are used. Christ and Paul had deep experiences and strong emotions, but they no where took the trouble to tell about their 'feelings.' When Christ was in sorrow, he said with simple dignity—'Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say?' &c. So Paul said on one occasion, when the circumstances of his argument required it, that he had 'great heaviness and continual sorrow in his heart;' and on the other hand he was accustomed to express victory in Christ, and love, and great rejoicing; but it was in a direct, spontaneous, outgushing way, that did not allow him any time to talk about his 'feelings.' Of course, where a person has experience that he wants to tell, and makes a business of calling your attention to it, then it is proper to use such language as is most convenient and descriptive; but let us carefully cultivate our ears, and discipline our spirits, against egotism.
I will add nothing more now, but if it is desired will continue my remarks from time to time as I see occasion.
Yours, &c. G.