Seeing through the eyes of others

Joad on The Brains Trust
One of my favourite old books on style is How to Write, Think and Speak Correctly by CEM Joad. Published in 1939, this collection of advices has a timeless quality.
Joad was a celebrated intellectual in his time, best known for his appearance on the BBC radio programme, The Brains Trust; in which a select panel answered listeners’ questions ranging from the deeply philosophical (such as the meaning of life) to ‘everyday’ questions e.g. What makes the wind blow? Joad’s often used opening to his answers was “It all depends on what you mean by ...” Our Cyril was quite a lad in his time; more here from Wiki. I strongly recommend this lightly written and edifying book – it has passed the test of time.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 9 – Good English and Good Style:

Seeing Things Through Other People’s Eyes.

“... Let us suppose you are sitting in front of a brightly burning coal fire. Try to describe it as it first appeals to you, perhaps a tired man sitting happily by his own hearth after his day’s work. I imagine that what would appeal to you most about it is the genial comfort it radiates and the homely atmosphere it creates. It symbolizes home and rest, peace and security, and your description of it would emphasize everything about it which conveyed those impressions vividly to your readers.
Then try to describe it as a child might. To a child the fire is a maze of tumbled fairy castles and from within the glowing coals peep out a bookful of dragons, gnomes and goblins. It may be that when you have finished writing the description of the fire it will read more like a fairy story than a simple description of combustion, but that will be so much gained.
Finally, imagine that you are a weary mother thinking of the work to be done tomorrow. What is a source of comfort to you, the tired worker, and a fairyland to the child, is to her an occasion for work. She will think of the fire as so many pailfuls of ashes to be cleared away, so much hearth to be swept clear of dust, so much grate to be cleaned and blackleaded. Try to put yourself in her place and to describe the fire through her eyes. You will have to use your imagination in order to understand her feelings; you will have to try to think with your heart, as they say, as well as with your head.
A word of encouragement. If you have made a success of these two exercises you are well on the way to becoming a novelist. For the novelist is, among other things, one who observes scenes clearly, and possesses a gift for seeing them through the eyes of other people—his characters ...”

Copyright G.739 Odhams Press, Limited.

Still available in print online.

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