Approaches to Writing, Ian Gordon

Committed to Print
J E Traue,
Victoria University Press, Wellington, $24.95

The Common Writer
Robert Neale,
Oxford University Press, Auckland, $29.95

Real Writing
Rachel McAlpine,
GP Publications, Petone, $24.95

These three books approach the craft of writing from three very different viewpoints. Traue (one-time head of the superb Turnbull collections) is a scholar librarian, a lover of books and – not always the same thing – the richness of their contents. He writes of what he calls the ‘common culture’ of the book in our society with authority and clinical precision. This collection includes some real landmarks in literary and bibliographical scholarship‑notably (to me) his piece in the history of the University of New Zealand Press and his quite admirable set of essays on the function of research libraries. Head and heart are united in these quietly excellent studies.

Neale is a lecturer at Massey University, where he has long specialised in the teaching of prose writing. The Common Writer is no run of the mill how-to-do-it manual. Neale is as interested in the ‘why’ as in the ‘how’. He offers no simple set of formulae for good writing but begins with theory, starting with the philosophers Aristotle and Locke, and slowly works his way through a variety of examples towards actual practice. If this approach is more difficult than the facile rule-of-thumb manual, remember that Katherine Mansfield once wrote ‘the English language is damned difficult’. The Common Writer is a real attempt to face up to the difficulties.

To move from the cool academicism of Traue and the philosophising of Neale to the pages of Real Writing is something of a shock. I am well aware of what McAlpine means by ‘real writing’: novels, poetry, plays, short stories ‑ the books that so many academics comment on so expertly and so few can write themselves. This is not the shock; it is the sheer slapdash quality of the book’s writing. McAlpine, in a series of jaunty how-to-do-it letters, instructs her novice ‘Dear Sue’ like a FizzEd teacher jollying along the hockey team:

‘Oh, tra la la, you’ve got me writing poetry again. Now fair’s fair: how about sending me a few poems? And don’t agonise over them the way you did with the short stories. Just write the darn things. OK?’

And when the darn things do arrive the response is ‘Wow, that was quick’.

True, the latter part of the book is full of handy hints on markets, editors, publishers etc etc, the mere mechanics of the craft. But I find a lack of that responsibility and commitment to the language, which to me is the hallmark of the ‘real writer’. I can see that Dear Sue is not ready yet for The Common Writer but in the meantime a close reading of The Carpathians would show her how a real writer handles the task.

In the end, we can learn only from the real writers, bless them all.


Ian Gordon, now retired, was Professor of English at Wellington.


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