Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose
Learning to write in a style is learning an activity—like playing the violin, sprinting, pole-vaulting, sparring, riding a horse. This course and the book that grew out of it teach an activity, not a content. Students consider the concept of style and learn to notice style, to recognize styles, and to analyze styles. Analyzing them makes it much easier to acquire them.
A style consists of a conceptual stand on some basic intellectual questions that are the elements of style. Learning to write in a style is learning to inhabit its conceptual stand.
We select one style, classic style, for daily practice. Classic style is a general style, suitable for presenting anything, accessible to anyone who wishes to learn it. Although there are many distinguished classic writers who work in English, and although workaday classic style is widely used in journalism, advertising, and instruction in English, classic style is not a routine style in the English-speaking world and is almost never taught in its schools. This unfamiliarity with writing in classic style actually makes it easier for the student to recognize that classic style is a style, to detect the classic stand, and to practice classic style without sliding into intuitive and unconscious but poorly developed or incoherent former versions of it. Since classic style has thrived in English and appears in every field and situation, regardless of content, students notice instantly that the activity they are trying to learn is widely practiced. They recognize its products in literature, manuals, guide books, news reports, book reviews, personal letters, statements of purpose, nearly anywhere they care to look, provided they know how to look.
The status of classic style in the French-speaking world as a routine, automatic, culturally privileged style, taught in the schools, deliberately acquired, associated with the greatest French writers, helps American students see that the ease with which they fall into a style is largely a matter of their cultural biography, and that the unconscious styles they have acquired, which seem to them inseparable from their identity, are stands that can be exchanged. A style is like a coat one can put on and take off. One coat can be exchanged for another. If the student had been born in France and had attended certain French schools, he or she would have come in adulthood to regard classic style as a standard style, in fact the style that sets the standard.
Classic style is also an incomparably effective style for American students to learn, because classic style is associated in America with intelligence and distinction, even though classic writing does not draw attention to itself or appear to be trying to promote the writer. Having learned to inhabit the classic stand and to write or speak from it gives the student an invaluable instrument for dealing with any moment that calls for self-presentation or persuasion, because classic style in America is taken as a mark of the superiority of the writer. The ethos carried by classic style gives an implicit but powerful picture of the writer which often accomplishes all by itself the task the student faces. The writer confronted with the law school application, the blank “Statement of Purpose,” the application to graduate school, the job interview, the brief interval in which she may be allowed to pitch whatever it is she has to pitch, has a great advantage over competitors if she can assume the classic stand and speak from it.
Classic style is elastic over personalities, allowing the student to develop an individual style that is none the less classic for being individual. La Rochefoucauld, Thomas Jefferson, A. J. Liebling, and the authors of the Audubon Guide to North American Birds are all distinct and well-formed individuals, but they are all prototypical classic stylists.
Classic style offers the student exceptional pleasure since it is flattering to the writer, flattering to the reader, and intellectually collusive. It takes the stand that there is no external pressure on the writer and certainly nothing that the writer is trying to beat out of the reader—a grade, a letter of recommendation, a contract. The writer is unquestionably competent, absolutely interesting, entirely disinterested, at leisure, and articulate. The writer’s security as a thinker and a writer is not at issue. As students learn to write in classic style, their adoption of the classic stand becomes, by degrees and in pulses, more and more thorough. The assumed scene of classic style displaces ever more effectively the real scene. Many of them forget, for long stretches, that they are enrolled in a class, writing to a teacher, or vulnerable to grades. The student is sprung, if only temporarily, from the undergraduate nightmare of being treated like an adolescent, pushed into intellectual fraud, and required to pretend that the fraud is educational. Adopting the classic stand can become addictive for undergraduate students because it reliably and enjoyably brings them good grades, gives them a social distinction, and springs them from the undergraduate intellectual ghetto.
Since the course teaches an activity, it defines the teacher in the role of the coach, the dance instructor, the music instructor, the sen-sei. The coach gives tips on performance, suggests training routines, helps the student see what is to be achieved. There are tricks, and we will present those tricks on this web site from time to time, but the tricks are secondary; the student must above all be dissuaded from imagining that a style can be learned by acquiring a bag of tricks, especially surface tricks. Learning to write in a style is learning to inhabit the intellectual stand of the style; surface features to some degree follow a stand, but in ways that differ across classic stylists. Little local rules for doing this but not doing that are an impediment, not a help, to learning classic style. We use the trick of prohibiting students after the first few weeks from mentioning surface features in their stylistic analyses, and requiring them instead to begin an analysis by answering the questions on page 22 of the book. We maintain this proscription until the danger seems to have passed.
We tell students frankly that they are being asked to think about style in an unnatural way and to learn to write in a style that is foreign to them, and that we know, based on our experience in teaching this course, that they will be profoundly confused and uncomfortable for about a month. We do not yet know of a way to speed up this period. Students appear to do a great deal of conceptual work during this month, but not to flower until the fifth or sixth week. We tell students that the first month of work may be the most important—certainly it is indispensable—but that there is almost no point in grading anything they write during that month, because it will bear little relation to what they can do by the end of the class. We tell them that above all they must not approach the class by trying to understand it as fitting something they already know. They do not know what we are about to teach, or anything like it, and if they substitute something they do know for the activity of the course, it only means they will not learn. They are being asked to learn something new, and they must approach the course in that spirit—they are being asked to learn to walk on their hands, become a mime, fly. We tell them that the only way to learn an activity is by doing it routinely, to think about it all the time, to practice it as part of their daily intellectual equipment, and that if they try to learn classic style or the analysis of style by turning on their “style module” for an hour or two the night before an assignment is due, not only will they fail completely to learn the activity, they may be worse writers at the end of the course than they were at the beginning. Scales must be practiced every day, fan kicks must be worked on every day, front kicks every day. To learn the activity, the student must do stylistic analysis as part of looking at the world, and try every day, a few times a day, to inhabit a style and write from it. At first, it is like learning to hold a violin bow—everything seems to go wrong. But after a while, it is like knowing how to hold a violin bow—it seems unnatural to hold it any other way.
We tell the student to obliterate completely the hope of learning to write by revising what they have written. To write in classic style, or any style, the writer must first inhabit the conceptual stand of the style, and then write from it. The beginning student is asked to write, to analyze the style of what she has written, and to notice ways in which it is unclassic, and then to lay it completely aside, to inhabit the classic stand, and to write something new. A passage already in a style can be improved by local revision, but it usually cannot be turned into another style by local revision. In the second half of the course, we in fact ask students to “revise” a piece to make it classic, but this kind of “revision” is actually more a “substitution.” Many courses in writing take local, textual revision as their central method. We, by contrast, do everything to encourage the student to abandon that method. For the first few weeks, it is best if the student never revises a thing she writes, but instead always tries to inhabit the style more fully before starting from scratch.
Defining the teacher in the role of the coach requires the teacher to perform spontaneously for the students the activity they are asked to learn. In sports, a coach can plead old age or infirmity, but there are no excuses for the teacher of this class. The class will often become, simply because students will insist on it, an impromptu workshop. The teacher must be able to pause and speak in classic style, often to replace something a student has offered, while pointing out the difference between the student’s prose and the teacher’s prose. The teacher will then turn the tables on the student, and give the student something to be jettisoned and replaced with a classic alternative. This is not difficult. With a little work, any competent teacher of writing can learn to do it.
In the first four weeks of the course, we lose a few students. The course looks stranger and stranger to them, their work looks worse and worse, they cannot see a future, and they flee. Typically the students we lose have been raised on courses in which serious, sequential, and productive industry has supplanted actual learning: the syllabus in such a course provides a program of progress with tasks to be performed at each step, the tasks require exertion and suffering which the student can recognize, and the products of suffering can be marked up and graded. By contrast, in this course, students spend the first several weeks trying to become comfortable with the concept of inhabiting a conceptual stand and writing from it, and they do not acquire this concept easily or in visible pieces. In the first month, their efforts typically show little progress and they can become frustrated at the lack of tricks for improving their work. Should they revise this sentence? No. Should they work on their vocabulary? Maybe; it depends. What should they do with this essay, to which they have dedicated their time? Well, observe its stylistic stand, lay it aside, try to inhabit the style, and start over from scratch in the attempt to write from that stand.
It is possible to teach prose style through a program of explicit steps and tricks, and this method does create a feeling of success, but in our experience it is an illusion that fails, in the end, to produce the right results.
We do not know of a way to speed up this initial period or make it less confusing. We keep the student working, we offer examples, we give initial assignments designed to allow the student to get a foothold, we discuss the concept of style. We say, “Think about it for a minute. Do you really expect to be able to acquire a style, or even a part of a style, in a couple of weeks, by using these words instead of those words, that paragraph structure instead of this, or in any way making some little adjustments in what you already do? People teaching themselves have been delighted to learn classic style after working on it for a decade, while this class is going to make you a basic classic stylist in fifteen weeks. If you were trying to learn to hurdle, you would expect to spend at least a month before you looked like a hurdler instead of a goose flopping over the bar. Patience.” This is just too bizarre for some students.
We give a sequence of assignments designed to save the beginning student from crashing. Our method has something in common with giving a child a bicycle with training wheels, confined to a safe course, and letting the child ride. Now and then, in stages, we raise the training wheels and make the course harder. The alternative—giving the child an unmodified bicycle and telling it to go ride in the street—is for most students the path to sure obliteration.
But in each class there are a couple of students who are frozen by proscription (“don’t write about x; don’t begin with y”) and who have a knack for learning activities at a swoop. Their debilities and abilities are inseparable. To such a student, we say, aside, “See that bicyclist? Here’s a bicycle; get on it and ride.” The student falls down fast and often, but, surprisingly, by afternoon can wobble along on the bicycle and can even articulate the principles that guide her riding. Specifically, we give such a student something like the Audubon Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region and say, “See these presentations of birds? Go write twenty presentations that sound like that.” Sometimes the student not only produces passable imitations but also learns the principles of the style.
This second method is not recommended except under a doctor’s orders.
We teach this course, in this way, because the results are miraculous. We find it hard to believe it ourselves. When asked to describe the results, we lie, afraid of looking self-deceived. Privately, we use words like “inexplicable” and “magic.”
This course is incomparably gratifying for the teacher. Students whose writing was embarrassing in the past, who wrote the kind of paper that makes the Freshman writing instructor sigh with despair before correcting some spelling and scribbling “awk” here and there, become passable writers. They still write “it’s” for “its,” but that is a flaw they can fix easily and locally, and which they now have a motive to fix since they can recognize it as a blemish on something basically sound. Average students become good stylists, even though in some cases it takes three months. All of the students learn to analyze the style of a passage presented to them. There are always a few students in the class whose work becomes absolutely distinguished, publishable, a portfolio for launching a career. The greatest surprise for us is the student whose writing goes from truly terrible to truly superb, who produces work we would have thought permanently out of his reach. We ask in office hours, “What happened?”
There comes a gratifying moment in about the twelfth or thirteenth week of the semester when we announce that we will start each class with readings from student work. We read these fine pieces one after another, and the class as a whole judges its collective performance to be breathtaking. The individual students write in their sketchbooks and in private email, “I thought I was the only one who had made the jump.”
In fact, the improvement is clearly too large to be the result of fifteen weeks of study. We imagine that much of it comes from clearing away impediments to hidden abilities.