Seeing clearly: a brief introduction to classic style

Classic style is a mode of writing that is widely used but rarely identified as a distinct style. Perhaps it’s so ubiquitous it’s hard to see.

According to Francis Nöel-Thomas and Thomas Turner, whose book Clear and Simple as the Truth has done more than any other to clarify the style’s defining characteristics, it was developed in 17th century France by a school of writers seeking an effective means of presenting a set of carefully considered conclusions to a wide, intelligent readership.

In evolving the style they looked back to the example of writers from the classical world such as Aristotle, Cicero, Plato and Thucydides who had worked towards a style of writing suitable for presenting information clearly in written form for everyday purposes: what Cicero called a ‘middle style’ distinct from the more celebrated ‘high style’ used for winning audiences to a cause, rallying troops, making prophecies or other grand purposes.

Thomas and Turner make the intriguing suggestion that the essential elements of what we now understand as classic style were first brought into focus by the philosopher Rene Descartes, who wanted a confident, clear style suitable for defending the concept of truth against Renaissance sceptics such as Michel de Montaigne, whose freewheeling essays had probed our capacity to say with integrity that we can actually know anything at all. Whatever the truth of that speculation, the little book in which Descartes set out his argument, the Meditations, can still be read as a shining example of classic style.

Clarity, grace and force

The style is as useful as it ever was, four centuries later, because the principles Descartes and his contemporaries used to present their philosophical arguments can be employed to present any subject at all with clarity, grace and force.

Classic style, whether the writer is conscious of doing so or not, is used today by journalists, academics, TV and radio presenters, and science and nature writers (genres for which the style is exceptionally well suited). It is also ideal for a wide range of everyday business communications, such as blog posts, web content, product descriptions, corporate publications and editorial.

In my last post I noted that every writing style flows from an imagined scene establishing the relationship between writer and reader. Classic style imagines a conversation between a writer and reader who stand in a relation of complete equality. The writer’s purpose is simply to bring something to the reader’s notice. It doesn’t matter whether the focus of the writer’s gaze is concrete or abstract, something that can pointed out in the physical world, or a concept that can be seen only in the mind’s eye. Classic style is as suitable for illuminating an immaterial philosophical concept as it is for noting a feature of a bird’s plumage. The metaphor of vision applies in both cases: the writer directs the reader’s gaze to something she has seen and now wishes the reader to see for themselves, whether through the physical or the mind’s eye.

The classic writer is confident she commands the reader’s attention, and that the reader is capable of understanding whatever the writer is bringing to their attention. The reader is assumed to be the writer’s equal, perfectly able to grasp and assimilate what the writer has pointed out once they have seen it for themselves. And because the writer is confident that what she sees is true, she doesn’t so much argue for what she has to say as simply present it. Classic style imagines the writer and reader as standing in the same place, and the writer as simply pointing something out that they can both see.

The scene is like that of a guided tour through a gallery. The guide – the writer – shows each exhibit to their guest – the reader – and, drawing on his expertise, confidently comments on each work, noting the particular qualities of each. Or think of two people standing on a hillside, regarding a panorama. One – the writer – points something out, perhaps a local landmark or a bird in flight, and notes its significance.

At no point does the classic writer feel the slightest need to embellish what they have to say to win the reader’s attention or assent. Indeed the writer doesn’t even set out to persuade, simply to present what they can see, in calm, unhurried fashion, taking as much time, and as many words, as they need to do so.

And she uses clear, simple, everyday language to present what she can see. The writer is confident that the words we use in day-to-day life are perfectly adequate for presenting any subject at all, no matter how complex. There is no need to turn to specialist vocabulary until it is absolutely necessary to do so. The writer relies on her skill with words, not abstruse jargon, seeking the ideal of transparent prose that the reader can look through, as if it were a window, to see the truth. To borrow George Orwell’s formulation in his essay Why I Write, ‘Good prose is like a windowpane.’

The classic writer’s prose shines with confidence. Both writer and reader and reader are aware from the outset that the reader is engaged in a performance. The writer is presenting her own perspective of what they believe to be true. There will be other perspectives. But the writer is confident that their particular viewpoint is the correct one, and trusts in the pure clarity of their presentation to persuade the reader. She never hedges her words, expresses doubt, or resorts to hyperbole or deceit: the classic writer is confident she is correct, and that she will win the reader’s assent.

A few examples

Let’s consider a few examples that illuminate the particular ambience of classic prose. The first is one of the most influence passages in world literature, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Jefferson’s sentence, from the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, written using simple, straightforward prose, has the force of secular scripture. With the confidence of a child of the Enlightenment Jefferson doesn’t so much as argue for his ‘self-evident’ truths as simply bring them to our notice. He assumes that once his readers see what he can see, their assent is assured. For Jefferson the ‘unalienable Rights’ to which he refers are eternal, like stars in the sky that have always existed, waiting to be seen.

The next two passages are from a contemporary book by the Scottish theologican Richard Holloway, A Little History of Religion, an introduction to the world’s faiths intended for a young readership but informative for an audience of any age.

Holloway draws on a lifetime’s reflection on theological and philosophical questions to articulate complex concepts such as spirit, revelation and grace with transparent clarity. Here, in the space of single paragraph he describes how the rarefied idea of the eternal soul unfolded from observation of the simple act of breathing:

The most obvious thing we notice about the dead is that something that used to happen in them has stopped happening. They no longer breathe. It was a small step to associate the act of breathing with the idea of something dwelling within yet separate from the physical body that gave it life. The Greek word for it was psyche, the Latin spiritus, both from verbs meaning to breathe or blow. A spirit or soul was what made a body live and breathe. It inhabited the body for a time. And when the body died it departed. But where did it go? One explanation was that it went back to the world beyond, the spirit world, the flipside of the one we inhabit on earth.

Elsewhere, considering the concept of revelation, Holloway suggests that:

Monotheistic religion is like the characters in a book trying to make contact with their author … The prophets of sages wait and listen and look into the distance. They open themselves so that the source of their being will reveal itself to them. And its reality forms in their minds the way a character realises itself in the mind of an author. Slowly a picture of God emerges like a photograph being developed in a dark room. Theologians call this activity emerging revelation. And they usually claim that the picture of God promoted by their faith is more advanced in its development than an previous version.

A daunting theological category is explained in terms of everyday activities with which non-specialist readers will be familiar: the idea of reading a book, or developing an image in a dark room.

Finally here is a passage from J.A. Baker’s classic of British nature writing The Peregrine, published in 1967. Here Baker observes a hawk closing on its prey with the razor precision characteristic of the book:

The tide was rising in the estuary; sleeping waders crowded the saltings; plover were restless. I expected the hawk to drop from the sky, but he came low from inland. He was a skimming black crescent, cutting across the saltings, sending up a cloud of dunlin dense as a swarm of bees. He drove up between them, black shark in shoals of silver fish, threshing and plunging. With a sudden stab down he was clear of the swirl and was chasing a solitary dunlin up into the sky. The dunlin seemed to come slowly back to the hawk. It passed into his dark outline, and did not re-appear. There was no brutality, no violence. the hawk’s foot reached out, and gripped, and squeezed, and quenched the dunlin’s heart as effortlessly as a man’s finger extinguishing an insect. Languidly, easily, the hawk glided down to an elm on the island to plume and eat his prey.

Baker’s unsparing focus allows us to see the scene through his eyes. The passage’s precision, freshness of image, and unsentimental, unflappable tone, are pure classic style.

All of these examples are drawn from literature. But classic style’s confidence, clarity and respect for the reader’s intelligence make it ideal for business writing, as I explain in my next post.