Charles Dickens

Author, Charles Dickens

Before he was a novelist, Charles Dickens honed his craft as a roving newspaperman. Part police reporter, part investigative journalist, part Op-Ed columnist, part critic, part feature writer: there were few desks in the newsroom at which he’d not sat by the time he turned his quill to novels. And, back then, he did his research with his feet.

His eyes and ears hoovered up every speck of dust and dirt that clung to London life, as he staked out hangings at Horsemonger Lane, gin-joints in Holborn, the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall, the city’s theatres, slums, prisons and pawnshops. His early descriptions of places, people and customs were so vivid that they are the closest we have to a film reel of early 19th-century London. He read the city like a book.

‘There are,’ proclaimed the young flâneur, ‘certain descriptions of people who, oddly enough, appear to appertain exclusively to the metropolis. You meet them, every day, in the streets of London, but no one ever encounters them elsewhere; they seem indigenous to the soil, and to belong as exclusively to London as its own smoke, or the dingy bricks and mortar.’

Without Dickens’ formative journalism years, there would be no Fagin or Mr Pickwick, no Little Nell, Nancy, Scrooge or Sairey Gamp. In fact, there would likely be no books at all. For it was there that he honed the art of writing.

If you decide to read Dickens’ journalism, you should start with Sketches by Boz, a series of eyewitness newspaper reports on ‘shabby genteel’ London of the time, and a fascinating public record of Dickens’ apprenticeship.

‘They comprise my first attempts at authorship,’ he later wrote, ‘collected and republished while I was still a very young man; and sent into the world with all their imperfections (a good many) on their heads.’

But despite being just 24 when he wrote them, they already contained the seeds of genius. As his career progressed, and ‘fame’s trumpet’ blew louder, he never stopped working on his writing, sharpening his techniques, polishing his phrasing. Indeed, glance across his life story and you could presume that he was primarily a journalist who moonlighted as a novelist – scholars estimate that across his 35-year-long career he produced more than a million words of nonfiction. 

And while Dickens never wrote a treatise on the art of writing, he did leave behind a great many tips and opinions in letters, articles and books. Here is a selection of some of his best. 

 

Do as Dickens did

'Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.' 

Dickens' famous motto and standard by which he judged all his novels 

 

Make sure you've lived

'I think you are too ambitious, and that you have not sufficient knowledge of life or character to venture on so comprehensive an attempt. Evidences of inexperience in every way, and of your power being far below the stations that you imagine, present themselves to me in almost every page I have read. It would greatly surprise me if you found a publisher for this story, on trying your fortune in that line, or derived anything from it but weariness and bitterness of spirit.'

From a letter to a writer who sent him a manuscript to read, 5 February 1867

 

Work hard

‘[Only jolter-headed], conceited idiots … suppose that volumes are to be tossed off like pancakes, and that any writing can be done without the utmost application, the greatest patience, and the steadiest energy of which the writer is capable.’

From a letter to the author Wilkie Collins, 20 December 1852

Charles Dickens

 

Don't patronise your audience

'. . . [I] don't think that it is necessary to write down to any part of our audience. I always hold that to be as great a mistake as can be made.'

From a letter to journalist and friend William Henry Wills, 12 October 1852

 

Remember: writing is meant to be hard

'Guard her against supposing that successful Fiction is to be written easily. Patience, attention, seclusion, consideration, courage to reject what comes uppermost, and to try for something better below it.'

From a letter to the father of 19-year-old future novelist Georgina Craik, 2 June 1852

 

Perservere (even Dickens suffered from writer's block)

‘I didn’t stir out yesterday, but sat and thought all day; not writing a line; not so much as the cross of a t or the dot of an i. I imaged forth a good deal of Barnaby by keeping my mind steadily upon him; and am happy to say I have gone to work this morning in good twig, strong hope and cheerful spirits. Last night I was unutterably and impossible-to-form-an-idea-of-ably miserable.’

From a letter to John Forster, lamenting writer’s block on Barnaby Rudge, 29 January 1841

 

Get a hobby

'You must remember that in all your literary aspiration, and whether thinking or writing, it is indispensably necessary to relieve that wear and tear of the mind by some other exertion that may be wholesomely set against it. Habitually, I have always had, besides great bodily exercise, some mental pursuit of a light kind with which to vary my labors as an Author. And I have found the result so salutary, that I strongly commend it to the fair friend in whom I am deeply interested.'

From a letter to the German novelist Sophie Verena, 30 April 1856

 

Get a pet

‘Some friends in Yorkshire have sent me a raven, before whom the Raven (the dead one) sinks into insignificance. He can say anything – and has the power of swallowing door-keys and reproducing them at pleasure, which fills all beholders with mingled sensations of horror and satisfaction – if I may [say] so; with a kind of awful delight.’

From a letter to Angela Burdett Coutts, 27 October 1841

Introduce your protagonists early

‘It is almost indispensable in a work of fiction that the characters who bring the catastrophes about, and play important parts, should belong to the Machinery of the Tale, -- and the introduction towards the end of a story where there is always a great deal to do, of new actors until then unheard of, is a thing to be avoided, if possible, in every case.’

From a letter to John Landseer, 5 November 1841

 

Cut, cut, then cut some more

'I hope, when you see it in print, you will not be alarmed by my use of the pruning-knife. I have tried to exercise it with the utmost delicacy and discretion, and to suggest to you, especially towards the end, how this sort of writing (regard being had to the size of the journal in which it appears) requires to be compressed, and is made pleasanter by compression … I have truly tried to touch it with a loving and gentle hand.’

From a letter to the writer Mary Boyle, 21 February 1851

 

Writing will not make you rich

‘Fame’s Trumpet should blow a little more of the wealth arising from the circulation of my works, into the Booksellers’ pockets, and less into my own.’

From a letter to George Fletcher, 2 November 1841

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