Clear And Simple Prose

by Mary Hrovat

Image of part of the cover of the book Clear and Simple as the TruthBooks about how to write are so frequently described as life-changing and essential (usually by publishers, but sometimes by reviewers) that I was initially unmoved by enthusiastic reviews of Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner. However, the praise seemed to focus on the fact that the book had changed the reviewers’ attitudes toward what writing is and how it works, and that interested me. I decided to get a copy, and I’m glad I did. The book describes and illustrates a particular style of writing but also, and perhaps more importantly, it really did give me a different framework for thinking about what style is and, yes, what writing is.

Thomas and Turner begin by distinguishing what they mean by style from what other writers have meant. The word style as they use it doesn’t refer to surface features of writing like the use of passive voice or adverbs, much less the minutiae of hyphenation or conventions regarding how dates are presented. In addition, they clarify that they are speaking of a style, one of several, rather than the style that all good writers should use. In choosing a style, a writer adopts “tacit concepts of what writing can do, what its limits are, who its audience is, and what the writer’s goals are.” Writing is more difficult than it needs to be when writers don’t grasp these concepts.

Specifically, a style is determined by the writer’s attitude toward five aspects of writing: truth, presentation, scene, cast, and thought and language. The first part of the book describes how classic style considers these issues and classic prose embodies them.

The attitudes that a writer takes toward toward truth, language, and so on aren’t universal truths that are adopted as a set of beliefs. They involve enabling conventions, which are essentially working assumptions that are useful for completing your work and that shape how you do it. They describe an approximation of reality that enables a certain type of writing. The single most useful thing I got from the book may be the concept of the enabling convention.

When I explained this concept to my younger son, he said that it reminded him of the aphorism about statistical models: All models are wrong; some are useful. I like the analogy. We don’t grasp reality whole and undistorted. Our models, and the assumptions underlying our writing styles (regardless of whether they’re consciously adopted), diverge from reality at some points, as any model must. Because we use styles and models to present or understand the world, we need to be aware of their capabilities and limitations. Classic style relies on the assumptions that we can think disinterestedly and convey the results of this thought clearly. Although these assumptions may be wrong, “they help to define a style whose usefulness is manifest.”

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The scene of classic prose, according to Thomas and Turner, is that the writer is presenting a subject of intrinsic interest to the reader through the transparent window of her prose. The writer is describing something independent of herself, something that others can see, once she draws their attention to it, and verify for themselves.

The truth being presented is assumed, for the purpose of writing, to be knowable and not contingent (it is the same for you as for me). Writing is not the same as thinking but is rather the product of thought, and language is assumed to be entirely suitable for presenting this product. I was particularly interested in a discussion of how the structure of language can be used to reflect the structure of thought. Even abstractions can be presented as clearly and precisely as physical objects, if the writer herself can see them clearly. The reader is competent at grasping the information the writer is presenting and is assumed to be reading out of interest.

Before she writes, the writer thinks through her subject and works out how to present it elegantly but accurately. To do this, she needs to establish a hierarchy of importance; fine distinctions that are essential to the subject of the writing are described, but inessential distinctions or details are omitted. Consequently, the writer must have a good understanding of what is central and what is peripheral.

Because the work of thinking is done behind the scenes, the act of writing is seen as a performance. The writer is “adopting a role for a limited time and purpose.” Although she may have doubts and anxieties, they shouldn’t be allowed to show in the work. (I appreciate the fact that the book is not asking me to somehow shed my doubts and anxieties, but assuring me that I can work despite them.) For the purpose of playing her role, the writer assumes that she knows enough about her subject and is capable of sharing what she knows.

This was another key point for me. Being self-doubtful by nature and early training, I have a hard time claiming competence or adequate knowledge. This problem has been exacerbated rather than alleviated by learning; the more I know, the better I see the limits of my knowledge. I had to pause over the idea of assuming that I know enough about something to write about it. Isn’t that a hallmark of ignorant blowhards?

I think the difference lies in being aware that you’re doing it. If you know enough about something to have doubts, to recognize the caveats and exceptions that blur the edges of any topic and to know when you can ignore them for a specific purpose, you’re probably going to take sufficient care about determining what to leave out and how to frame what you put in. This is part of the discipline of using classic style, which “depends absolutely on domesticating realities whose borders are necessarily vague.”

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The first section of the book goes into these points thoroughly and then compares classic style with other styles (for example, plain, contemplative, romantic, practical). Because there is no single good stance on the five points I mentioned above, other styles are possible. (That fact alone is valuable to articulate.)

Contemplative style, for example, is used to not only present something, as classic style does, but also to interpret it. Romantic style focuses on the writer and what she experiences (where experience includes emotion and sensation as well as thought); it reflects an interior world rather than presenting the exterior world. I found these comparisons helpful because I have tended to lean more or less unconsciously toward those styles while realizing only dimly that they are choices, and that other choices are possible.

The discussion of practical style is particularly illuminating. Practical style assumes that the writer is conveying knowledge that others need for some instrumental purpose: to learn a skill, or prepare for a meeting, or make a decision. Making things as easy as possible for the reader is crucial to this style: “Why else would anyone presume to take up a reader’s time than to solve a problem for the reader?” The corollary to this is that readers will not spend time on your words just for pleasure or out of the intrinsic interest of your material.

Much current writing advice seems to be based on the unspoken assumption that practical style is the default for most purposes, or at least that all writers need to anxiously consider how approachable their work is to busy readers with short attention spans. I think some of the assumptions of this writing style get tangled up with considerations based on the financial insecurity of writers in today’s commodified publishing environment. The writer must assume that the reader is likely to walk away at any moment, either because the writing doesn’t pay off quickly enough or because there is so much other information competing for the reader’s time.

The financial bottom line in publishing (even self-publishing) is usually so obvious and all-important that it can stifle a timid writer who is already constantly asking herself, “Who am I to presume to say this?” It can be profoundly discouraging to assume that all readers are pressed for time, are skimming, and will dart off as soon as they’ve seized upon the nugget they were after, or, even worse, will give up and look somewhere else.

Untangling these factors from the otherwise laudable goals of practical style, and realizing that writing in practical style is a choice among others, relieved some of my anxiety around writing in any style. It’s good to understand what practical style is and is not, and also to know that I have the option, at least some of the time, of writing from a space in which it’s worthwhile to present interesting information to curious readers for its own sake.

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The second section of the book, the Museum, gives many examples of writing, both classic and otherwise, with brief comments. It’s educational and sometimes amusing. The range of examples is surprisingly wide, encompassing poetry (the first two lines of Philip Larkin’s This Be the Verse) that is classic in style and some interesting takes on non-classic style: an Alan Greenspan quote that is frustratingly opaque but is described as “a virtuoso performance of stonewalling disguised as incoherence,” and a paragraph from Milton’s Areopagitica, which is written in a highly mannered style that was intended to give the work the necessary gravitas for the author’s purpose. The examples also illustrate that classic style can be applied to a very wide range of topics.

The third section of the book (new in the second edition) is the Studio, which explains how classic style is applied and presents exercises. Classic prose develops from the act of pointing out to a companion something that can be directly perceived: a building, a person, the call of a bird, the smell of bread baking. The Studio explains how to extend the clarity and directness of this type of communication to much more complex and less readily perceptible subjects.

I savored the honesty of the following passage in this section: “Often in writing, you will feel that things are getting away from you. You are not mistaken. Things are in fact getting away from you.” It goes on to describe how to apply the exercises to get yourself out of any sticky situations you find yourself in while writing in classic style.

The book concludes with a highly annotated list of examples of classic prose in a range of fields and from various time periods. I found this list inspiring, and I enjoyed the commentary, particularly that on technical writing (which used to be my trade), science, and history.

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I don’t think I’d say that this book changed my life; lives don’t change that easily, and at any rate, I haven’t finished working through the Studio yet. But it did encourage me to direct my attention to a different view of things that are important to me. It clarified my thinking and showed me possibilities that I hadn’t seen before. It was a pleasure to read. I don’t think a reader or a writer can ask for much more than that.

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You can read more of my work at maryhrovat.com.

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