The issue of good writing has had me in its grip since my post on No Man’s Land 2 weeks ago....I confess that I have a folder on the subject - with a 100 page “commonplace” collection of comments and links about the matter....
I’m glad, however, that I hadn’t released it on a unsuspecting audience - since I’ve just discovered a quite brilliant extended essay on ”Economical Writing” written in 1983 by one Donald McCloskey who underwent an identity change a couple of decades later and is now the redoubtable Professor Deirdre McCloskey.
I recommend the piece partly because it is so beautifully written and structured – a veritable exemplar of the advice it offers - with just one exception. Some of the references are dated or too American. Harry G Johnson, for example, may have strutted the globe like a Colossus in the 70s and 80s but, very sadly, only older economists will now recognise the name.
But the piece should also be read since it is one of the few which superbly captures the travails of writing
That essay, in turn, alerted me to several important texts on writing style about which I was totally ignorant – not least one by the glorious English writer Robert Graves The Reader over your Shoulder which Graves and Alan Hodge actually published in the war years of 1944. The inimitable Paris Review had this to say about the book -
Modestly subtitled “A Handbook for Writers of English Prose,” the book was never merely that. The Reader Over Your Shoulder has been called the authors’ contribution to the war effort. It would be too much to say that they thought good English could save the world. But to Graves and Hodge, clear and logical prose was not a mere nicety: “The writing of good English is … a moral matter, as the Romans held that the writing of good Latin was.”
The title sums up their theme, stated early in the book: “We suggest that whenever anyone sits down to write he should imagine a crowd of his prospective readers (rather than a grammarian in cap and gown) looking over his shoulder.” By imagining readers’ questions, the authors say, “the writer will discover certain tests of intelligibility.” These tests, outlined in part 1, consist of forty-one principles for writing, twenty-five devoted to clarity and sixteen to grace of expression. Each principle is carefully defined, then illustrated by snippets of writing that fail the test.
In part 2, Graves and Hodge reverse this process. They analyze more than fifty short passages by eminent contemporary writers, applying line by line the principles laid out in part 1. But they don’t just point out shortcomings. They actually rewrite the passages. This took a lot of nerve, considering that they were correcting people like T. S. Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, Ernest Hemingway, John Maynard Keynes, Cecil Day-Lewis, Ezra Pound, Stephen Spender, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw. (One of their friends suggested as a subtitle “A Short Cut to Unpopularity.”)
Their purpose was not to sneer at the mighty, but to show that occasionally even the best writers are careless or inattentive. In choosing their samples, the authors explain, they simply took up a book or article by each writer, then “read on at our usual speed until we found ourselves bogged in a difficult passage. This passage became the subject of our analysis.”
Each sample—whether from a prime minister or a popular novelist—is subjected to the same forty-one principles. There should be no doubt in the reader’s mind as to who, what, when, where, how much, how long, and so on. No word or phrase should be ambiguous or out of place. Sentences should be linked logically and intelligibly. Ideas should follow one another in a natural order. Metaphors should be handled with care. Nothing unnecessary should be included, nothing necessary omitted.
Another delight unleashed on me by McCloskey’s essay was Unended Quest – an intellectual autobiography; Karl Popper (1974 – updated 1992)
In the meantime I had resumed my reading here in Ploiesti of David Runciman’s little bombshell - How Democracy Ends (2018) whose references to other relevant texts reminds me a bit of Matt Flinders’ In Defence of Politics. Runciman's book has been nicely reviewed here - and here
One of my new subscriptions had an interesting take on the new US radical mags
If the intellectual at the think tank was the assistant to the legislator, here she has become the willing tool of the activist......Last year, in a report on “new public intellectuals,” the Chronicle of Higher Education referred to The Point as being the “least left-wing” of the intellectual magazines that had emerged in the first two decades of the 2000s. The phrasing consolidated a common misunderstanding.
What distinguishes The Point from the other magazines mentioned in the story (Jacobin, the Nation, n+1, Dissent, the Baffler) is not where we fall on the left-right spectrum, but rather how we picture the relationship between politics and public intellectual life—or, to use Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft’s helpful phrase, “thinking in public.” Whereas the other magazines have framed their projects in ideological and sometimes in activist terms, we have attempted to conduct a conversation about modern life that includes but is not limited by political conviction. This has meant, on the one hand, publishing articles that do not abide by the dictum that everything is “in the last analysis” political. (Some things, we believe, are in the last analysis poetic, some spiritual, some psychological, some moral.) It has also meant publishing a wider range of political perspectives than would usually be housed in one publication. This is not because we seek to be “centrists,” or because we are committed to some fantasy of objectivity. It is because we believe there are still readers who are more interested in having their ideas tested than in having them validated or confirmed, ones who know from their own experience that the mind has not only principles and positions but also, as the old cliché goes, a life. If the Jacobin slogan indicates a political truth, it inverts what we take to be an intellectual one: Ideas Need Resistance....
In our eagerness to advance what we see as the common good, we rush to cover over what we share in common with those who disagree with us, including the facts of our mutual vulnerability and ignorance, our incapacity to ever truly know what is right or good “in the last analysis.” This is the real risk of the strategic approach to communication that sometimes goes by the name of “political correctness”: not that it asks that we choose our words carefully but that it becomes yet another tactic for denying, when it is inconvenient for the ideology we identify with, what is happening right in front of our eyes—and therefore another index of our alienation from our own forms of political expression. The journalist Michael Lewis, embedded with the White House press corps for an article published in Bloomberg in February, observed that a “zero-sum” approach is spreading throughout political media, such that every story is immediately interpreted according to who it is good or bad for, then discarded, often before anyone has paused to consider what is actually happening in the story.
The photo is of my village in the winter - just 200 metres from my house
The photo is of my village in the winter - just 200 metres from my house