The Wall Street Journal publishes a column called “Notable & Quotable” that features quotations worth further contemplation. The latest issue contains a quote from a letter Waugh sent to Thomas Merton in August 1948 advising him on how to improve his writing skills:
Never send off any piece of writing the moment it is finished. Put it aside. Take on something else. Go back to it a month later and re-read it. Examine each sentence and ask “Does this say precisely what I mean? Is it capable of misunderstanding? Have I used a cliché where I could have invented a new and therefore asserting and memorable form? Have I repeated myself and wobbled round the point when I could have fixed the whole thing in six rightly chosen words? Am I using words in their basic meaning or in a loose plebeian way?” . . . The English language is incomparably rich and can convey every thought accurately and elegantly. The better the writing the less abstruse it is. Say “No” cheerfully and definitely to people who want you to do more than you can do well.
Most of this same quote appeared earlier this year in the artsblog of Terry Teachout, the WSJ’s drama critic, and this may have inspired its inclusion in the newspaper’s column. See earlier post. The letter is sourced to Mary Frances Coady, Merton & Waugh (2015).
This is the second time this year that a Waugh quote has featured in this column. On 26 February 2016 there was a quote from Waugh’s 1939 book Robbery Under Law regarding his definition of a conservative:
A conservative is not merely an obstructionist who wishes to resist the introduction of novelties; nor is he, as was assumed by most 19th-century parliamentarians, a brake to frivolous experiment. He has positive work to do . . . Civilization has no force of its own beyond what is given from within. It is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilized man to keep going at all . . . If [it] falls we shall see not merely the dissolution of a few joint-stock corporations, but of the spiritual and material achievements of our history.
(Penguin Classics, 2011, p. 311). In both cases there are handsome photographs of Waugh heading the column, one smoking a cigar upon arrival in New York in 1947 and the other from 1935 in a bowler hat. These may not appear after the first link to the article unless you have a subscription.
NOTE (17 May 2016): An economist, Timothy Taylor, blogging as the “Conversable Economist”, was inspired by the WSJ quote of Waugh’s letter to Merton to read Mary Frances Coady’s book. His comments are posted here.