Ford Madox Ford is one of those authors who write so well they either inspire you to push yourself to a higher level or make you want to give up altogether.
Ford never did get the adulation bestowed on many of his contemporaries from the early 1890s to the late 1930s. But then, he did pal around with some fast company: from Henry James and Joseph Conrad in the early years to Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene later on.
Ford understood the importance of good technique. The beginning writer, he noted, usually starts out more concerned with self-expression.
“He will inevitably desire to get out of his system his reactions to sex, wine, music, homosexuality, parents, puritanism, death, life, immortality, technocracy, communism and existence amongst the infinite flatness beneath the suns and tornadoes of the Middle West or the Mississippi Delta.”
But before long the writer realizes the need for technique. A smart writer will spend a lot of time reading highly regarded authors to see how they pull it off.
“He will come into his own when, reading those works a final time in a spirit of forgetfulness, for pleasure and with critical faculties put to sleep, he shall say: ‘Such and such a passage pleases me,’ and casting back into his subconsciousness shall add, ‘This fellow gets that effect by a cadenced paragraph of long, complicated sentences, interspersed with shorter statements, ending with a long, dying fall of words and the final taptaptap of a three monosyllabled phrase …’ Just like that.”
Read that self-demonstrating paragraph again and marvel.
Attention to detail can push any piece of writing to a higher level. Each word needs to create the right mental image, and the combination of words should have a cadence that feels natural to the ear. It takes a lot of work, and it’s worth the effort.
If you don’t know Ford, pick up a copy of “The Good Soldier” and get an entertaining education.