‘Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose’ by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner

Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose

This book starts with a redefinition of style. For guide writers such as Strunk and White, elements of style include such things as preferring the active voice and sticking to one tense in summaries. Newspapers and magazines generally have a house style, which is a set of arbitrary but consistent choices, such as how to format dates, and whether or not to italicise titles. Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing include, ‘Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue,’ and, ‘Never use an adverb to modify the word “said”‘. None of this, according to Thomas and Turner, is style.

They assert that style does not consist of arbitrary surface choices: it is a fundamental stand concerning truth and writing’s relationship with it. There are many styles, but they are concerned here with just one: classic style. Classic style makes two big claims: first, that truth can be known; and then, that language is equal to expressing it. It is an optimistic style, in which prose is a perfect medium, a clear window on truth. Whatever is recognisably a ‘thing’ can be presented, no matter how abstract or complex it is. The causes of the 2008 financial crisis, or the meaning of fear, are both ‘things’ in the same way that a chair is a thing, and they can be presented perfectly using classic prose. None of the labour and inspiration that goes into the writing will be visible to the reader, because part of the writer’s job is to hide all this. Classic prose draws no attention to itself, only to the truth being presented.

Classical style is sophisticated because any truth worth telling is nuanced. The title of this book, inspired by an Oscar Wilde quote, is thus somewhat ironic. ‘The truth is clear and simple,’ would be an example of plain style, which is suitable for Biblical pronouncements and folksy aphorisms. Classic style incorporates plain style, but is not satisfied with it. The classic sentence that Wilde actually wrote was, ‘The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.’ It is not just the nuance that make this classic, but its confident, declarative stance. If Wilde had prefixed it with, ‘In my view…’ or, ‘It may be that…’ the sentence would not be classic. There is no compromising, no hedging in classic style.

All of this is a pose, of course. There is no absolute truth, and if there were, there would be no perfect way of expressing it. But the classic writer behaves as if there is because it is useful to do so: it makes for stronger, clearer, more persuasive writing. There are techniques in play here that will be well known to any student of rhetoric. One is the establishment of the author as an expert and objective commentator. Another is the connection the author forges with the reader. Classic style is egalitarian: it places the author and reader on the same intellectual level in a scene where one is talking spontaneously to the other. The reader is assumed to be competent, but not to have any specialist knowledge or familiarity with other texts. The only privilege the author claims is in knowing something the reader does not. This knowledge is shared through a process that cognitive scientists call joint attention; a scene in which, ‘there are just two people, paying attention to something that is directly perceptible, such as a blackbird in a tree.’ Classic prose enables the reader to ‘see’ this blackbird, or whatever other thing is being presented, just as clearly as the author can.

Classic style is ‘pure, fearless, cool and relentless’ in a way that no human writer can ever be, or at least, not all the time. It is not suitable for every purpose. It lacks the overt emotional appeal needed for a political speech, or a love letter; it is not equipped for the doubt and self-exploration that a memoir or personal essay might call for; and it will not entertain the artificial signposting, jargon, and counter-arguments that are conventional in academic writing.

Classic style is a good style for history, philosophy, reportage, expository essays and narrative fiction. Thomas and Turner list Thucydides, Descartes, Mark Twain and A.J. Liebling as notable proponents. They call the school of classic prose an aristocracy, but this is an elite that anyone with enough application can join. Classic style is a craft, not an art, and it can be learned. The current edition of this excellent book includes a section called The Studio, which features practical exercises in developing the skill of writing classic prose. There is also a section called The Museum that features examples of the style and discusses what makes them classic. The most illuminating exhibit though is the book itself, which is written with all the cool elegance and unswerving rigour that defines classic style.

One thought on “‘Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose’ by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner

  1. Great essay on one of my favourite books. I’ve read it maybe 10 times and try to follow the principles of classic style in my own writing, but it’s hard to learn this sort of thing on your own, without a teacher.


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