Clear and Simple As the Truth: Writing Classic Prose

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9780691029177: Clear and Simple As the Truth: Writing Classic Prose


Everyone talks about style, but no one explains it. The authors of this book do; and in doing so, they provoke the reader to consider style, not as an elegant accessory of effective prose, but as its very heart.


At a time when writing skills have virtually disappeared, what can be done? If only people learned the principles of verbal correctness, the essential rules, wouldn't good prose simply fall into place? Thomas and Turner say no. Attending to rules of grammar, sense, and sentence structure will no more lead to effective prose than knowing the mechanics of a golf swing will lead to a hole-in-one. Furthermore, ten-step programs to better writing exacerbate the problem by failing to recognize, as Thomas and Turner point out, that there are many styles with different standards.


In the first half of Clear and Simple, the authors introduce a range of styles--reflexive, practical, plain, contemplative, romantic, prophetic, and others--contrasting them to classic style. Its principles are simple: The writer adopts the pose that the motive is truth, the purpose is presentation, the reader is an intellectual equal, and the occasion is informal. Classic style is at home in everything from business memos to personal letters, from magazine articles to university writing.


The second half of the book is a tour of examples--the exquisite and the execrable--showing what has worked and what hasn't. Classic prose is found everywhere: from Thomas Jefferson to Junichir? Tanizaki, from Mark Twain to the observations of an undergraduate. Here are many fine performances in classic style, each clear and simple as the truth.


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Review:

These days, discussions of writing style are generally limited to superficialities such as serial commas and approved abbreviations. It's a pity. While consistency in writing does make for more pleasant reading, no amount of rule-abiding can mask poorly wrought prose. In Clear and Simple As the Truth, Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner argue that "writing is an intellectual activity, not a bundle of skills." The first half of their book is a probing examination of classic style, the form popularized by 17th-century French prose writers such as Descartes, Pascal, and Madame de Sévigné and best typified contemporarily by much of the writing in the pre-1985 New Yorker. The authors liken classic style to those theorems in mathematics valued for being "brief, efficient, clear, elegant, and pure." The classic sentence appears effortless, "as if it could have been written in no other way," and while "the writer may speak with a technical mastery not possessed by the reader ... his attitude is always that the reader lacks this mastery only accidentally." While one can hardly hope to distill the essence of classic style into a sentence, Thomas and Turner describe it most succinctly as expression that is "clear and simple as the truth, but no clearer or simpler."

The second half of the book is a "museum" of classic prose, by Thomas Jefferson, Descartes, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Richard Feynman, Oscar Wilde, Philip Larkin, and many others, accompanied by commentary from the authors.

From the Author:

A free on-line instructor's guide for using Clear and Simple as the Truth in the classroom is available at http://www.wam.umd.edu/~mturn/WWW/csguide.html.

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Francis-Noel Thomas, Mark Turner
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