On Style: Ten Rules and a Desire

Guest Column

Don’t let anyone tell you that there are no rules for good writing.There are scores of them. That’s the problem: if you followed them all, you wouldn’t get a word down on the page. So you make a few of them your own and try seriously to follow them, though not so seriously that you wouldn’t break any of them if the need arose. My personal rules are simple, obvious, and conventional.

1. I favor the active over the passive voice. The passive sounds great in German prose, but if used too often in English, it makes your writing sound like it’s been translated from German.

2. I try not to pile up polysyllabic, abstract nouns but leaven them, whenever I can, with more direct and pungent diction. The difference can usually be traced to the distant origin of words: in modern English Latinate and Latinate French words sound different from words that come from Anglo-Saxon. But you don’t actually need to know etymologies—only to sense the distinction in the level of style between, say, “stomach” and “belly” or “expectorate” and “spit.”

3. I loathe split infinitives and am willing to make an effort, even an extravagant effort, to avoid them. The world probably doesn’t care, but I do. And the cumulative effect, I believe, is subtly depressing. There is a reason that Shakespeare did not write “To perhaps be or not to any longer be.”

4. I try to vary the rhythm of my sentences, so that my readers won’t slump back too comfortably in their chairs. If you always know what’s coming, you begin to doze. In the midst of a succession of long, sonorous sentences, a short sentence can say: wake up.

5. I try to vary the tone as well, but here I am much more cautious. I shy away from wild swings of diction, unmotivated (or undermotivated) lurches from dignified elevation to gritty colloquialism. After all, it is not queasiness but confidence and pleasure that I want to produce.

6. Though I love metaphors, I use them sparingly. The truth is that I wish I were better than I am at coming up with them. Aristotle thought that a command of metaphor was a sign of genius. Sigh. But it helps to know your limitations.

7. I use a substantial chunk of what, to borrow an ancient expression, I think of as my “word-hoard.” But I am careful to take my readers with me. That is, I imitate a trick constantly employed by that lover of arcane language, William Shakespeare. If Shakespeare was drawn to a powerful word—“incarnadine,” for example— that he thought might mystify his audience, he provided an immediate gloss: “making red.”

8. I imitate. Shakespeare is a hard act, and I don’t recommend it. But one of the key steps for writing well is simply to identify someone who you think does it brilliantly. Then you copy. My own stylistic model, when I was starting out, was George Orwell. I read him first in high school and had been struck at once by the extraordinary way he managed to combine clarity, intellectual rigor, and passion. I deliberately set out to see how he did it and how I could get something of the same effect. Don’t misunderstand me: I am advocating not plagiarism but rather a careful attention to diction, sentence structure, and rhythm. The choice of Orwell as model was a fortunate one for me, I think, because his gifts as a prose stylist—unlike those, say, of Henry James or Virginia Woolf—are imitable. But there is no magic in this particular choice: what is crucial is to find someone whose voice you passionately want to incorporate into your own. You will not succeed, but it is precisely in failing that you will eventually fashion your style.

9. I rewrite. My own preference is to rewrite sentences, often a dozen times or more, as I go along. It sometimes feels like trench warfare, advancing in the mud inch by inch. I know that some successful writers do it differently: they put it all down, as quickly as they can, and then go back and rework what they have written. Perhaps there are even writers—the thriceblessed ones who have performed some miraculously good deed in an earlier incarnation—who do not have to rewrite at all. But I have never met any of these.

10. I struggle to achieve clarity. I think that if my sentences are murky, it is probably a sign that my thinking is murky. This does not mean that the ideas I am trying to express have to be simple, let alone simple-minded. But I have an ethical commitment to transparency, and I experience a distinct pleasure when I have succeeded in being clear. If I communicate the pleasure of clarity to my readers—if it courses through my prose—then I know that I am writing well.

One last note: I try, whenever I can, to give my writing the energy that comes from storytelling. This is not a rule but a desire. Narrative is certainly not the only game in town—in fact, most of the time when you sit down to write, you are being asked to make an argument, not tell a story. But if you can give the argument you are making some narrative power, you are way ahead of the game. After all, the idea is to make someone actually want to read what you have written. Decades ago, I remember popping out of my room and buttonholing a friend. “I’ve written the first sentence of my dissertation,” I announced proudly, and I proceeded to read him what I had written: “Sir Henry Yelverton, the king’s attorney general, was no friend to Sir Walter Ralegh.” I must have cut a ridiculous figure, and there is nothing about the sentence that is particularly noteworthy. But I still remember the peculiar joy that it gave me: I wanted, and I hoped my readers would want, to know what the next sentence would be.

About

For more than 20 years, Exposé has annually showcased outstanding essays written by students in Harvard’s first-year course in the Harvard College Writing Program. All students are required to take “Expos,” a tradition since 1872. Expos asks students to work intensively with their teachers on the skill of writing thoughtful arguments that respond to challenging ideas, complex debates, and puzzling social phenomena.

Annotations

Sidenotes