Sunday, December 27, 2015

`How Words Are Best Used'

“To write well, read well. Read good books, which are often, but not always, old books.”                  

Bill Vallicella takes the words right out of my mouth. The most common question I’m asked is some variation of “How can I learn to write?” and my most common response is a variation on “Clear prose is symptomatic of clear thinking,” and its corollary: “Muddled writing betrays muddled thinking.” The exception to the corollary is intentional obfuscation, encountered most often in writing about politics. Getting back to Bill’s observation, good writers tend to be good readers. If not widely read, they are deeply read in a few good writers. A good place to start is with the late Jacques Barzun, who is triply helpful by writing excellent prose, writing wisely about writing good prose, and championing the work of good writers. In Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers (1975), Barzun is admirably practical: 

“In saying that a person who wants to write adequately must put his mind on words to the point of self-consciousness, I was not exaggerating. Words for him must become objects in themselves, as well as automatic signalers of meaning. (Notice `signalers,’ which I have just used: have you ever seen it? Is there such a word? Why not `signals’? Explain to yourself the difference between the shorter and the longer form—and why not just `signs’? If questions like these leave you undecided, reach for the dictionary.)” 

Barzun illuminates the thinking of a writer by posing a mundane writer’s problem and recapitulating the process every writer engages daily. Unlike most forms of self-consciousness, the sort Barzun advocates is not crippling. Every piece of writing involves making a thousand minute choices, conscious and unconscious. Barzun also goes on to echo Bill’s point above: 

“Reading abundantly, in good books, is indispensable. It is only in good writing you will find how words are best used, what shades of meaning they can be made to carry, and by what devices (or lack of them) the reader is kept going smoothly or bogged down in confusion.” 

Consider some of the writers Barzun writes about with admiration: Swift, William Hazlitt, Abraham Lincoln, John Jay Chapman, and Bill’s example, William James. Read Barzun’s A Stroll with William James (1983), the best book I know on the American philosopher. In it, Barzun writes: “It was the esthetician Leo Stein who pointed out why James’s `vivid beautiful prose’ may be easy to read and hard to understand: `One feels its richness and ignores its precision.’ The precision resides in each statement as a whole and the whole depicts an unhabitual grouping of ideas or facts.” 

Barzun’s “unhabitual grouping” might refer to a willfully obscure, muddled or pretentious piece of writing. What distinguishes James’ prose is its precision. As the American philosopher Brand Blanshard writes in On Philosophical Style (1954): “Persistently obscure writers will usually be found to be defective human beings.”


Subbuteo said...

“Clear prose is symptomatic of clear thinking,” and its corollary: “Muddled writing betrays muddled thinking.”

Doesn't this mean that, in a sense, a good prose writer has to have the virtues of a good philosopher first. He has to be able to clarify his ideas in order to convey them before attempting to write them down. This means that he should not concentrate on the words he uses as an end in themselves but see them as a means to an end. What is the true end he seeks? To carry on the discourse.

Cal Gough said...

I see that we agree on Jacque Barzun's stunning intelligence and wisdom. I am plodding through - no, luxuriating through - his FROM DAWN TO DECADENCE tome, and loved his STROLL WITH WILLIAM JAMES so much that I devoted an entire blogpost to singing its virtues. Fortunately for us readers, Barzun wrote over 40 books - more than enough to enhance what's left of my reading career.