Monday Motivation: Beauty is clarity, clarity beauty

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

One of the aspects of writing – and of teaching creative writing – that continually perplexes and frustrates me, is the difficulty, indeed the apparent impossibility, of teaching writers to write a good sentence.

The sentence, of course, is the basic building block of all narrative. However original your story, however striking your characters, however earth-shattering your ideas, if you can’t write a sentence then all these virtues are as naught.

I often urge writers not to make beautiful writing their ambition. That will lead, in my experience at least, to self-conscious prose of the purple variety. No, I suggest that our goal shouldn’t be beauty, but clarity.

“Write a simple sentence with short words that capture the essence of what it is you want to communicate,” I say.

I sometimes browse the internet in search of wisdom about writing – and I occasionally find it. This week I found myself downloading the PDF version of The Economist’s Style Book*. Know what a “style book” is? Well, every newspaper has one. It’s the particular publication’s catalogue of its preferred grammatical constructions (never split an infinitive might be one such imperative, although misguided); punctuation (the New Yorker still, strangely, sticks to such formulations as preëminent and coöperation) and so on.

But The Economist’s Style Book is regarded as being so authoritative that it has, in the opinion of many, become the last word, or at least a word worth bearing in mind, on the subject.

So I began reading its Introduction, and almost immediately was struck by this piece of advice:

‘Catch the attention of the reader and then get straight into the article. Do not spend several sentences clearing your throat, setting the scene or sketching in the background. Introduce the facts as you tell the story and hold the reader by the way you unfold the tale and by a fresh but unpretentious use of language.

‘In starting your article, let your model be the essays of Francis Bacon. He starts “Of Riches” with “I cannot call riches better than the baggage of virtue.” “Of Cunning” opens with “We take cunning for a sinister or crooked wisdom.” “Of Suspicion” is instantly on the wing with “Suspicions amongst thoughts are like bats amongst birds, they ever fly by twilight.”

‘Each of these beginnings carries implicitly within it an entire essay. Each seizes the reader by the lapels and at once draws him into the subject. No gimmickry is needed, no flowery language, no literary contrivance. Plain words on their own carry enough meaning to provoke an intriguing thought, stir the reader’s curiosity and thus make him want to continue.’

So that’s the burden of my thoughts today. However grand the palace you’re building, it will be no better than the humblest of your materials: your sentences. Keep them simple, use ordinary words, eschew what The Economist rightly calls “gimmicks”, and you should be on your way.

Happy writing,

Richard

* The introduction really is worth dipping into whenever you feel like a refreshing plunge into a clear and invigorating pool. And I’m almost certain that I’ll return to it for more inspiration.

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