H.P. Lovecraft, science fiction writer and creator of Cthulhu and the Necronomicon, often contributed to The United Amateur, the "Official Organ of the United Amateur Press Association." In a January 1920 article titled “Literary Composition,” Lovecraft laid out guidelines for beginning writers to keep in mind. Here are 11 of them.
1. Know Your Grammar.
“It is necessary … to caution the beginner to keep a reliable grammar and dictionary always beside him, that he may avoid in his compositions the frequent errors which imperceptibly corrupt even the purest ordinary speech,” Lovecraft writes. “The human memory is not to be trusted too far, and most minds harbor a considerable number of slight linguistic faults and inelegancies picked up from random discourse or from the pages of newspapers, magazines, and popular modern books.”
Lovecraft then lists 20 mistakes that young writers often make and should be avoided, since “almost no excuse exists for their persistent occurrence, [and] the sources of correction are so numerous and so available.” Here are a few:
(2) Barbarous compound nouns, as viewpoint or upkeep. (5) Erroneous case of pronouns, as whom for who, and vice versa, or phrases like “between you and I,” or “Let we who are loyal, act promptly.” (8) Use of nouns for verbs, as “he motored to Boston,” or “he voiced a protest.” (18) Use of false or unauthorized words, as burglarize or supremest. (19) Errors of taste, including vulgarisms, pompousness, repetition, vagueness, ambiguousness, colloquialism, bathos, bombast, pleonasm, tautology, harshness, mixed metaphor, and every sort of rhetorical awkwardness.
Also, don’t confuse “its” with “it’s.” Lovecraft hated that.
2. Read This …
Mastering technical rules is not enough for the beginning writer. He must also read as much as he can. “All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading, and the learner must never cease to hold this phase uppermost,” Lovecraft writes. “A page of Addison or Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook.”
3. … Not That.
“Popular magazines inculcate a careless and deplorable style which is hard to unlearn, and which impedes the acquisition of a purer style,” Lovecraft says. “If such things must be read, let them be skimmed over as lightly as possible.” (We can’t help but disagree with you on this point, H.P.)
4. Look to the Bible for Help.
Analyzing the King James Bible, as Dunsany and Boyd did, is “an excellent habit to cultivate,” Lovecraft says. “For simple yet rich and forceful English, this masterly production is hard to equal; and even though its Saxon vocabulary and poetic rhythm be unsuited to general composition, it is an invaluable model for writers on quaint or imaginative themes.”
5. Grow Your Vocabulary …
“The average student is gravely impeded by the narrow range of words from which he must choose, and he soon discovers that in long compositions he cannot avoid monotony,” Lovecraft says. The way around this, then, is to note how good authors express themselves and to be aware of that while writing. Also, look things up. “Never should an unfamiliar word be passed over without elucidation; for with a little conscientious research we may each day add to our conquests in the realm of philology, and become more and more ready for graceful independent expression.”
6. … But Be Careful How You Use it!
“[I]n enlarging our vocabulary, we must beware lest we misuse our new possessions,” Lovecraft writes. “We must remember that there are fine distinctions betwixt apparently similar words, and that language must ever be selected with intelligent care.” (This seems like advice E.L. James could have used.)
7. Be Descriptive …
“Description, in order to be effective, calls upon two mental qualities; observation and discrimination,” Lovecraft says. “One cannot be too careful in the selection of adjectives for descriptions. Words or compounds which describe precisely, and which convey exactly the right suggestions to the mind of the reader, are essential.”
Lovecraft goes into detail about how to describe nature (“how beheld—at dawn, noon … Sounds—of water; forest; leaves…”), objects (“history and traditional associations”), and animals (“species and size … parts”), with eight to 10 suggested descriptors for each.
Descriptions of people, he says, “can be infinitely varied … Suggestion is very powerful in this field, especially when mental qualities are to be delineated. Treatment should vary with the author’s object.” Fodder for a writer are a person’s appearance, stature, complexion, and most conspicuous feature; expression; grace or ugliness; attire; habits; and character, among other things.
8. … But Not Too Descriptive.
Again, this section on description comes with a caveat: “The reader must remember that they are only suggestions, and not for literal use. The extent of any description is to be determined by its place in the composition; by taste and fitness. … [I]n fiction, description must not be carried to excess. A plethora of it leads to dullness, so that it must ever be balanced by a brisk flow of narration.”
9. On Narration.
For narration to be successful, "it demands an intelligent exercise of taste and discrimination; salient points must be selected, and the order of time and of circumstances must be well maintained," Lovecraft says. "It is deemed wisest in most cases to give narratives a climactic form; leading from lesser to greater events, and culminating in that chief incident upon which the story is primarily founded, or which makes the other parts important through its own importance.”
10. On Plot.
“Plots may be simple or complex; but suspense, and climactic progress from one incident to another, are essential,” Lovecraft writes. “Every incident in a fictional work should have some bearing on the climax or denouement, and any denouement which is not the inevitable result of the preceding incidents is awkward and unliterary.” Better than taking a formal course in fiction writing, according to Lovecraft, is reading Poe—“ an absolute master of the mechanics of his craft”—and Ambrose Bierce, who “can attain the most stirring denouements from a few simple happenings; denouements which develop purely from these preceding circumstances.”
Furthermore, though odd events happen in the course of real life, they are out of place in a fictional story. “In fictional narration, verisimilitude is absolutely essential,” he says. “A story must be consistent and must contain no event glaringly removed from the usual order of things, unless that event is the main incident, and is approached with the most careful preparation.”
The novice writer can avoid a “weak, trickling conclusion” by writing “the last paragraph of his story first, once a synopsis of the plot has been carefully prepared—as it always should be,” Lovecraft says.
Avoid following a grand thought with a tame one; this is anticlimax, which “exposes the writer to much ridicule.”
11. Experiment With Form.
Few writers are equally proficient in all forms of literature, but for the novice writer, experimentation is key. “It is well, in the interests of breadth and discipline, for the beginner to exercise himself to some degree in every form of literary art,” Lovecraft says. “He may thus discover that which best fits his mind, and develop hitherto unsuspected potentialities.”