WHEN WE WRITE, we employ a writing style. We might not think that we do, but it is impossible not to. This is because style is inherent in the act of adding words together to form sentences, not an addition or embellishment to neutral text. Most of us in our writing reflect the general style of everyone else—vocabulary, idiom and syntax are shared and we tend to assume that what we read and hear all about us is inevitable and correct.
In the book Clear and Simple as the Truth, Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner explain it this way: ‘style is like the typeface in which a text is printed. We may overlook it, and frequently do, but it is always there.’ There are many different writing styles, such as the plain style of forms and instruction manuals to the romantic style some literary novelists. Some styles are dreadful — corporatese, legalese, academicese … Their book explains classic style, a way of writing that takes clarity and simplicity as its cardinal virtues.
Classic style is an attitude towards writing, an intellectual position rather than a set of techniques. There are key ‘enabling conventions’ that underpin its stance: ‘the motive is truth, the purpose is presentation, the scene is informal, language is adequate, truth can be known, and the speaker and hearer are competent’. What do these elements mean in practice?
The motive is truth
Classic style has a singular relationship with the notion of truth. Truth drives the necessity for a given piece of writing and this truth is (a) something the writer has observed, and (b) that can be readily explained to the reader. The writer does not have to persuade them of the value of what they are saying, that value is assumed. But having a clear purpose for writing — a truth to be shared — is why the writer addresses the reader at all.
The purpose is presentation
Classic style is not self-conscious or preoccupied with its own workings. It is not writing for the sake of writing. Instead, it presents its subject, something that exists beyond the writing. The writer has perceived the truth of this subject, and now presents it to the reader. This does not mean that classic style cannot write about abstractions like beauty or terror, but that it takes the premise that such concepts can be presented as if they are as self-evident and known as more tangible subjects. What matters is that the presentation is efficient, precise and that it ‘neither invents nor distorts’.
The scene is informal
The model of classic expression is one person speaking to another. The idiom is conversational, not heightened or rhetorical. Its rhythms are those of speech, if a somewhat more elegantly constructed form of speech than most of us can aspire to. There is a sense of spontaneity, and also of inevitability—that this is the most natural way to say what is being said. This is not to suggest that the writer does not labour over every single word, but that effort is nowhere apparent in the finished prose.
Language is adequate
In much the same way that classic style is motivated by a truth the writer has perceived, language is taken to be an adequate instrument for sharing that perception. It does not struggle to express a thought or bury its ideas in specialised jargon. As long as the reader brings along ‘a clear and focused mind’, the writer can offer something ‘important, complete, self-contained and intelligible’ in language we can trust and understand.
Truth can be known
We know that truth cannot be known. We know that no definition of truth can be universal and everlasting. We know that we understand the world through abstract constructs and our understanding is distorted by biases. But we operate most of the time according to common sense understandings of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’. Classic style does not justify its subject, but makes an enabling assumption that what is being expressed can be independently verified and is worthy of being articulated — that the truth of the writing can be known.
The speaker and hearer are competent
The classic writer presupposes the reader to be their intellectual equal and every bit as interested as they are in the subject to hand. This symmetry allows the conversation to proceed amicably.
STEVEN PINKER HAS written an excellent chapter on how to apply classic style in his book The Sense of Style. He sums up the chapter by saying:’ But it’s better to keep in mind the guiding metaphor of classic style: a writer, in conversation with a reader, directs the reader’s gaze to something in the world … [Classic style] works particularly well because it makes the unnatural act of writing seem like two of our most natural acts: talking and seeing.’