2000-08-28: Simple and Direct

Simple & Direct

A Rhetoric for Writers (1975)

by Jacques Barzun (1907-2012)

I saw a note concerning Barzun’s most recent work of history, encompassing the past 500 years of Western Civilization. While searching for it in the library, I came across this book. Barzun writes not as a teacher of writing, but as a teacher who has read a lot of pretty bad writing (from students and others). He works by explaining a principle, illustrating it with (presumed real) examples, summarizes in a Principle, and provides exercises for the reader. I looked at the exercises (briefly), but didn’t take them seriously. Except for a seemingly lengthy stretch concerning the visual appearance of handwritten corrections and typescript pages (the book was written pre-word-processor), I found the advice germane and the presentation interesting. Best of all, while reading such a book one is entitled to expect high quality writing.

He includes some quotes:

Words, therefore, as well as things, claim the care of an author. Every man has often found himself deficient in the power of expression, big with ideas which he could not utter, and unable to impress upon his reader the image existing in his own mind.    Dr. Johnson

I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate to the left or right, the readers will most certainly go into it. – C.S. Lewis

… here and there a touch of good grammar for picturesqueness.  – Mark Twain

Chapter I:  DICTION, or Which Words to Use is about the importance of getting the meaning right by choosing the word with the right meaning (denotation and connotation).

He stresses the use of a thesaurus, and a good dictionary for all those words we ‘know’ but can’t quite pin down.

Principle 1:  Have a point and make it by means of the best word.

He deplores jargon, usually a single ill-chosen word. For instance, motivation where motive would do. This is also an example of the plague of -tion words in common usage. Shun -tion, he says.

Principle 2:  Weed out the jargon.

A special cases is the common word used in an uncommon way, and the uncommon word used to obfuscate.

Principle 3:  Look for all fancy wordings and get rid of them.

Here he cautions against coinages, without good cause and understanding of the roots, suffices and combining principles involved. Acronyms and other abbreviations usually slow down the reader. The tendencies are to compress too much meaning into too few words (or letters), and to  squander too many words on too little meaning.

Principle 4:  Make sure you know not only the meaning but also the bearing of the words you use.

Principle 5:  Consult your second thoughts about slang, euphemisms, and “what everybody says,” so as to make your diction entirely your own choice.

Chapter II:  Linking, or What to Put Next addresses the problems of putting one word after (or before) another. Here he has some comments that express my ideas on mental workings.

There is not much linking, or not good linking, in the spontaneous expression of the mind when it gropes toward a meaning. For one does not usually think in full sentences or in single words, but in clumps of half-formed ideas that correspond very imperfectly to one’s intention. The intention itself changes and grows as one talks or writes.

In the attempt to write well–which is at the same time to think well–these clusters of untrimmed thought must be taken apart and looked at to test their connections and to find the best order of setting them down. …

A completed sentence, all agree, is a piece of construction; but we should not think of it as a house made building blocks. Rather, it resembles a skeleton, in which the joints, the balance, the fit of the parts and their inner solidity combine to make up a well-knit frame. …

To link or separate what has been wrongly split or joined is nothing else than to straighten out the syntax.

Principle 6:  Respect the integrity of set phrases, partitives, clichés, and complex modifiers.

Principle 7:  Ideas connected in reality require words similarly linked, by nearness or by suitable linking words.

Principle 8:  For a plain style, avoid everything that can be called roundabout–in idea, in linking, or in expression.

Principle 9:  Agreement is as pleasant in prose as it is in personal relations, and no more difficult to work for.

Principle 10:  Cling to your meaning. The tense or mood of a verb in a linked pair can destroy it.

This chapter ends with a selection from a lecture by Dorothy L. Sayers, called Aristotle on Detective Fiction. In it she says that Aristotle, in the Poetics, discussed Greek theater not because he loved it, but because it was practically the only example available to him and his readers. “But what, in his heart of hearts, he desired was a good detective story”.

Barzun starts Chapter III: Tone and Tune, or What Impression Will It Make? with these words: “What the reader calls pleasant or dull, what he remembers easily and returns to with eagerness, what he wishes more of in the form of new essays or stories or polemics, or warns his friends to keep away from, is largely a matter of Tone.” He then goes on to deplore the pseudo-technical tone.

Principle 11:  Do not borrow plumes.

Principle 12:  To be plain and straightforward, resist equally the appeal of old finery and the temptation of smart novelties.

“Old fineries” have become hackneyed by imitation, and “novelties” become trite too fast.

Principle 13:  The mark of a plain tone is combined lucidity and force.

Chapter IV:  Meaning, or What Do I Want to Say? appears to repeat a previously-covered topic, but Barzun is now discussing the meaning of a piece as a whole, beginning with the thought that started the whole enterprise. He quotes, without attribution: “The fundamental rule of style is to keep solely in view the thought one wants to convey. One must therefore have a thought to start with.” Barzun goes on:

Many writers have said that they do not fully grasp their own meaning until they have carved it like a statue, using words as material. The reason is plain. One starts writing, not with a well-shaped thought, trimmed and polished, but with an intent–perhaps with several, overlapping and conflicting. You see a scene in your mind’s eye or know the tendency of a complex argument, but do not know which part of the scene or argument is to come first–what, anyhow, is a part of something you sense as an undivided whole? Thinking, and nothing but thinking, will answer these questions; nor will the answer be satisfactory until the words are down on paper that represent the first finished piece of description or argument.

As the pieces (sentences) are added, one by one, they will so clearly show up gaps, inconsistencies, confusions in the sequence of thoughts–all quite hidden before you wrote–that you will inevitably come to see how writing is an instrument of thought.

On the topic of metaphor, Barzun has an interesting perspective:

A metaphor is a comparison embodied in a word or phrase without the addition of like or as. To say: “People’s characters are neither all black nor all white” is to compare virtue and vice with the colors white and black without saying so. The greater part of the vocabulary in any complex language is a mass of forgotten metaphors. For language grows in response to needs, and the readiest way to name new conceptions is to adapt concrete words to abstract purposes. To do this is to speak by metaphor–as when Socrates is called the gadfly of Athens.

Such metaphors often generate new concrete meanings out of which new metaphors are made, and so on. These various turns can be noted in: “A man’s financial position is said to be liquid when he can convert most of his assets into cash.” That sentence contains six buried metaphors, those in financial, position, liquid, convert, assets, and cash. If translated backward into roots the sentence says: “A man’s finishing [settling] put-there is said to be like water when he can turn his enoughs into a box.” By using box (in French, caisse; cf. packing case) to denote the contents of a money box, the idea we know as cash was expressed. It ought to follow that cash box ought to mean box box, but it does not, because the original has died and been buried in the word until we no longer think of box on hearing cash.

But it is evident that liquid in the same sentence is on a different footing. Except in banking circles, the word is still metaphorical. Ask a friend out of the blue: “How liquid are you today?” and the context of money will not occur to him at once as it would if you said: “How are you fixed for cash?” The metaphor, in short, still has life as a metaphor. The interplay between live and dead metaphors, and live and live, and live and resuscitated, constitutes the subject of most discussions of metaphorical writing. The injunction usually is: do not join two live metaphors that raise conflicting images. …

For the fully conscious writer, it may be useful to distinguish among three kinds of metaphor: (a) the ready-made single-word expression that spreads suddenly in some professional group or other–the jargon of people who do paper work; (b) those produced ad hoc for headlines, captions, and the like, and usually not repeated elsewhere; and (c) the latent metaphors in good ordinary words, which misuse galvanizes into fresh life. …

It remains to say a few words about certain tricks of prose that resemble metaphor, broadly speaking. One is irony, which uses ordinary words to mean the opposite of their ordinary meaning. It is a dangerous sort of tone unless skillfully handled: you may be taken at your word and the irony altogether missed. … Remember too that there is no synonymy in metaphor. The fact that one image will “work” is no guarantee that a closely related on will also. … If equivalence were possible … one could go from stubborn as a mule to pigheaded for stubborn, and arrive at pigheaded as a mule.

This stretch of the book, from page 119 to 146 had an oddity I’d never seen before: the page numbers were wildly out of order. Apparently a section of the sewn-in binding was folded the wrong way, or otherwise inserted wrongly. All the pages are there; fortunately they have page numbers.

Principle 14:  Trifles matter in two ways: magnified, they lead to pedantry; overlooked, they generate nonsense.

Principle 15:  Make fewer words do more work by proper balance, matching parts, and tight construction.

Principle 16:  Worship no images and question the validity of all.

Principle 17:  In each portion of the work, begin from a point clear to you and the reader and move forward without wobble or meander.

Chapter V:  Composition, or How Does It Hang Together? addresses the same questions–Is it clear? Does it suit?–to a wider range of the work. In particular he applies these tests to the external faults of sentences as well as their internal ones. He says “Nobody has been able to define sentence satisfactorily–which shows how important the subject is. As in poetry, love, thought, and faith, the reality is familiar but it eludes definition. None the less, as a writer you cannot escape the duty of knowing when you have written a genuine sentence. A rough test is to see whether there is too much or too little between the first capital letter and the final period to give voice to a self-supporting idea.”

Barzun identifies three forms of sentence: “The simple sentence has the general form A  B: some agent acts on some object or person or is acted on by it. … The compound sentence consists of two simple paired or contrasted: A  B and (or but) X  Y. The complex sentence is made up of two parts, of which the main one is a simple or a compound, and the other is a group of words that could not stand alone yet contributes to the total meaning. This second part is called a subordinate clause … perhaps Z] A  B …” (or [Z at the end, etc.).

He cites a 110-word sentence from G. B. Shaw, analyzes how it works, and goes on: “The last lesson to be drawn from the example is the most valuable: what makes for smooth reading is the continuous presence and activity of the original subject–one only–until the comments to be made about it are exhausted. …

This faithfulness to one subject till justice has been done to it is the rule of clear thought.”

Principle 18:  The writing of a sentence is finished only when the order of the words cannot be changed without damage to the thought or its visibility.

He goes on to discuss larger aspects of composition, opening and closing, including the following:

… an example … Here is how an introducer of Henry James’s short stories “takes you in”: “The list of things Henry James will not do for you, the reader, is rather forbidding.” Immediately you want to know what is on that list, and the trick is done: you’re caught, and in a legitimate way that creates no resentment. For your opening, then, frame a declarative sentence that goes straight at the heart of things, awakens a serious curiosity, and in its quiet, assured finality establishes the competence of the demonstrator.

For closing, finality is of course still more in order. Nobody wants merely to stop, but rater to end. And since the ending of any good experience leaves regret, the feeling of loss must be compensated for by a feeling of gain: what do I, the reader, possess in exchange for my willing attention to this past discourse? Sometimes a summary answers that question most aptly. At other times a conclusion arrived at, a new idea, the net result of the investigation, is the proper close. … In a self-contained essay, the close may recall the beginning–we have come ful circle after a veriegated journey. When this device is adroitly used it gives the reader a pleasant sense of retrospect, as if he now had a complete view of the ground covered and could call the land his own. In short, like an opening, a close has work to do. Neither is a detachable frill. So inescapable is this function that a writer often finds his true beginning ten or twenty lines below his first sentence and his true closing ten or twenty lines before he stopped writing. Watch for those happy indications of your unconscious judgement.

He goes further:

Without losing sight of meaning as our criterion for wording, we have … turned our minds more and more to spontaneous thinking as the prime ingredient of writing. Almost everybody thinks not in single words, nor yet in complete sentences, but in blobs of ideas and words between the two–say a subject with two or three notions clinging to it that one wants to bring out. That first portion once put in shape pulls along another and another, and by then one probably has a sentence, compound or complex. It is very difficult to think more extensively in one stroke, though it often happens that the fragments come so fast, the next pushing the one in front out of sight, that the blur interferes with the task of formulation.

He then recommends keeping notes of ideas (on 3×5 cards or similar), and an outline to keep order among the unruly ideas. About notes he says: “always take notes in your own words–I mean, of course, facts and ideas garnered from elsewhere, not statements to be quoted verbatim. Everything else you reword, for two reasons: in that effort the fact or idea passes through your mind, instead of going from the page to your eye and thence to your note while you remain in a trance. Again, by rewording you mix something of your thought with the acquired datum, and the admixture is the beginning of your own thought-and-writing about the whole topic. Naturally you take care not to distort. But you will find that notes taken under this safeguard are much closer to you than mere transcripts taken from other books; they are warm and speak to you like old friends, because by your act of thought they have become pieces of your mind.”

About outlines, he warns against making a too-detailed outline: “It consists of the appropriate number of main heads–from three or four to twenty or thirty (in a work of book length). The great thing is that they should really be main heads–all equal weight and therefore, when written out, in length. The only exceptions to this even division of the whole are the Introduction and Conclusion, if appropriate. The same relations obtain on a smaller scale for an essay. … Proportion facilitates the understanding of a subject by automatically impressing on the mind the correct view of relative importance.”

Principle 19:  In whatever paragraphs or essays you write, verify the sequence of ideas and take out or transpose everything that interrupts the march of thought and feeling.

Barzun starts Chapter VI:  Revision, or What Have I Actually Said? thus:

A good judge of the facts has declared: “All writing is rewriting.” He meant good writing, for easy reading. The path to rewriting is obvious: when rereading after a shorter or longer lapse of time what one has written, one feels a dissatisfaction with this or that word, sentence, paragraph–or possibly with the whole effort, the essay or chapter. If, as I assume, things are not totally bad, the rewriting affects only bits here and there. The criterion is as it has been throughout: Meaning. If words you have set down puzzle you once you have forgotten how they came to your mind, they will puzzle the stranger and you must do something about them–rediscover your meaning and express it, not some other or none at all.

The truths behind these reflections guarantee that the piece written at midnight on the eve of the deadline date will be bad. It is scarcely looked over in that desperate hour of fatigue and self-reproach; it is no piece of prose, but the possible embryo of one.

He points out some fairly obvious (at least in the context of this work) points: Revision is likely to cut; the writer is exuberant about words and puts in too many. You need to listen to the sentences; sometimes they sound odd, and attract the reader’s attention to the oddity, rather than the sense. The visual marking off of parts and sections helps the reader recognize transitions.

Finally he provides a reviser’s guide:

I.  What is the tone of my piece? Have I indulged myself in language that is toplofty, patronizing, technical for mere showing off–or have I been simple & direct throughout, never falsely modest, but always sincere and respectful of the reader?

II.  Is the movement of my prose satisfactory to the mind and the ear? Are my sentences on their feet, varied in rhythm and length, and carrying each its full weight of meaning and implication–or are many of them rendered obscure by my inattention to matching parts or thrown off balance by the weight of modifiers and afterthoughts?

III.  have I tested and retested the meaning of each statement of mine to preclude ambiguities? have I made fast every pronoun to its proper mooring–the slightest error is fatal–or have I allowed my private comprehension of the sense to blind me one confusion after another?

IV.  On the same subject of ambiguity, have I linked modifiers, clauses, and compound sentences in the clearest manner possible–or have I produced a number of danglers, manifest absurdities, and other false leads that will require the reader to start the sentence again and do the work I have left undone?

V.  Can I say, looking at single words, that every one of them means and connotes what I think it does? Or has my diction been spoiled by threadbare clichés, pseudo-technical jargon, unthinking metaphors, and that excess of abstract words known as the noun plague?

VI.  Still on the subject of words, have I been strict as well as clear–or have I committed any illiteracies, malapropisms, ludicrous confusions by echo, or heedless kingles by alliteration and rhyming syllables?

VII.  I turn now to my theme and ask myself whether the ideas of which it consists have been set down fully and in consecutive order–or have I again relied on my understanding of the subject to bridge over gaps in thought and to disentangle snarls in description?

VIII.  In the layout of my paper have devoted space and furnished detail in proportion to the importance of each topic–or have I concentrated on what interested me and skimped the rest, whether owing to a poor outline or the neglect of a good one?

IX.  Since readers have in common the desire to be enticed and to experience afterward a sense of acquisition, have I contrived the most engaging opening for my subject and the ending best fitted to leave an impress on the mind? Or do I fumble my way at first and leave matters in the air at the last? To which query I would add: do the divisions of the paper provide breathing spells at once significant and agreeable?

X.  Have I reread my copy and made it both correct and sightly? Or have I been inattentive, ignorant, lazy, and rude about typing, spelling, punctuation, inserts for correction, and other marks for the reader’s convenience?

Principle 20:  Read and revise, reread and revise, keep reading and revising until your text seems adequate to your thought.

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