Writing Advice from D. H. Lawrence at Twenty-One


Arts & Culture


On September 11, 1906, D. H. Lawrence turned twenty-one. Around that time he wrote this letter to Louie Burrows, a friend with whom he attended University College in Nottingham. The letter dissects one of Louie’s essays about art; it finds Lawrence full of youthful arrogance (“Like most girl writers you are wordy”) and optimism (“the world abounds with new similes and metaphors”). Lawrence and Burrows corresponded steadily for years; in 1910, they were engaged, though Lawrence broke off the engagement in 1912. (The “J” he refers to here is Jessie Chambers, another of his love interests.)

Dear Louie,

I am going to quizz [sic] your essay, not in the approven [sic] school-mistress style, but according to my own whimsical idea, which you may or may not accept. First of all I will find fault.

I do not like the introductory paragraph, it is like an extract from a Catalogue of Pictures for sale at some auctioneers … Like most girl writers you are wordy. I have read nearly all your letters to J, so I do not judge only from this composition. Again and again you put in interesting adjectives and little phrases which make the whole piece loose, and sap its vigour. Do be careful of your adjectives—do try and be terse, there is so much more force in a rapid style that will not be hampered by superfluous details. Just look at your piece and see how many three lined sentences could be comfortably expressed in one line. 

I know my essay was squeezed down almost to incoherence because I did not want it to be too long. I am very glad you saw how I had compressed; if I had filled in and merged off my thoughts Miss B[ecket] would not have accused me so strongly of confusion.

Again, don’t use hackneyed adjectives. “Shapely heads—fallen heroes—white bear on aged breast” you know these are in everybody’s mouth. If you would write, try to be terse and in some measure original—the world abounds with new similes and metaphors …

Things which are obvious are worth no more than a mention. If you cannot tell people of something they have not seen, or have not thought, it is hardly worthwhile to write at all. Try and study people, and the living soul which is the essence of mankind. If you have externals, they must represent something. I write to you as a would-be aspirant after literature, for I know you are such.

I like above all things your enthusiasm, and your delightful fresh, youthful feeling. Don’t be didactic; try and make things reveal their mysteries to you, then tell them over simply and swiftly, without exaggerating as I do. I think you will do well. You are brighter than Jessie, more readable, but you are not so powerful. You will doubtless succeed far better than I who am so willful. Be your own bright ingenuous self, and you are sure to make a delightful impression.

I am going to make my next try now. Let me see what you do—I am all interest.