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Clear and Simple

Posted on Wednesday, June 29, 2016 at 11:20 PM

It is time for book catch-up. Here's one. More to come.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Princeton University Press recently issued the second edition of Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, authored by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner. Thomas is professor emeritus of humanities at Truman College, City Colleges of Chicago. Turner is institute professor of cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University.

The prose used by the authors isn't always so "Clear and Simple as the Truth," but I suggest you choose to struggle through the occasional thickets for a book-length essay about writing that has been deeply thought out by Thomas and Turner. They express unhappiness over how much teaching of writing is based on a faulty principle: that writing is a verbal skill or set of skills that will occur if an improper placing of commas and a restructuring of paragraphs can be straightened out. Not so, they argue. "Our answer is that writing is an intellectual activity, not a bundle of skills. Writing proceeds from thinking. To achieve good prose styles, writers must work through intellectual issues, not merely acquire mechanical techniques."

Intellectual and Literal Skills

I faced an example of the problem several years ago that started at a weeklong conference for writers. The writer in question had been assigned to me, meaning I had to read a submission of hers and spend time with her during that week as she attempted to make a bit of progress on her novel writing project by following some of the line editing I had provided. Later, at a dinner during which teachers offered their services for funds to be used for scholarships at future conferences on the site, my student purchased me to come to her town for a day and do a workshop with fellows in her local writers group. I waited for her to call me with details she needed to work out. Well, the details never did materialize. She could not carry out her plans for the meeting.

She asked if I'd be willing, instead of giving the workshop, to read and analyze her novel. I thought seriously about that, desiring if possible to help her move forward. But the truth came to me. I could, indeed, line edit her manuscript and, thereby, improve it. But there was no way that I could more productively benefit her by doing something quite different from line editing. I may be an expert on writing, I told her, but I am not an expert on writing novels. She did not need me nearly as much as she needed a writer and editor of novels.

With my note, I sent a check that equaled the one she had written to the conference folks for scholarship assistance. I told her to bank my check, then write her own, enabling her to attend a "whole novel workshop" offered by the same institution. She took my advice. She took the workshop. She learned and improved her novel. And we remain friends.

I was getting to the same point that the authors of Clear and Simple are striving to make: that I could have fussed around with her writing and made the reading of it more smooth. But she needed help on an intellectual and literary level that only experts could give her. For me to have gone on with her request, I would have ended up cheating her and wasting both her and my precious time.

Successful Style

"Style," say the authors, "is a word everybody uses, but almost no one can explain what it means. It is often understood as the inessential or even disreputable member of a two-term set: style and substance." Style is the subordinate term, goes their argument, and with it "a persistent suggestion that we would be better off without it. Style is, at best, a harmless if unnecessary bit of window dressing."

Of course, style involves how a writer uses the language, but not just how grammatically, not just how effectively, not just how efficiently, but with what level of authenticity, with what measure of topical clarity, with what sort of success at understanding the levels of meaning that define the subject, with what strength and assurance the writer grasps the topic and knows what it takes to make the coverage complete, with how well the writer has found and comfortably used a kind of tone that fits the material and theme, with how topic and readers are brought together by the flow and structure of the story, by how strategically and attractively the language has been chosen for the intended readership.

The first half of Clear and Simple explores all sorts of styles; the second focuses on the authors' chosen style, the classic. The examples shown help one study what works best in all sorts of situations. The goal of achieving a classic writing style, say Thomas and Turner, is to present whatever your topic in language that offers no problems, but that is clear and direct and spare and well-spoken and appropriate and carefully thought through so that the message and the reader are at all times fully served.

That leaves room for personal choices, for writing that reflects the author's personality. But if you read this introspective book and continue to mind its suggestions, you may find writing, at least temporarily, more difficult than before, what with the weight of considerations our two professors have insinuated into your mind and heart. That, however, should come easier with time and eventually lead you to a literary nirvana (or something of the sort).

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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