Books for Writers Recommended Reads


Clear and Simple As the Truth : Writing Classic Prose

by Francis-Noel Thomas, Mark Turner

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Books for Writers Editor's Recommended Book, 01/01/98:
These days, discussions of writing style are generally limited to superficialities such as serial commas and approved abbreviations. It's a pity. While consistency in writing does make for more pleasant reading, no amount of rule-abiding can mask poorly wrought prose. In Clear and Simple As the Truth, Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner argue that "writing is an intellectual activity, not a bundle of skills." The first half of their book is a probing examination of classic style, the form popularized by 17th-century French prose writers such as Descartes, Pascal, and Madame de Sévigné and best typified contemporarily by much of the writing in the pre-1985 New Yorker. The authors liken classic style to those theorems in mathematics valued for being "brief, efficient, clear, elegant, and pure." The classic sentence appears effortless, "as if it could have been written in no other way," and while "the writer may speak with a technical mastery not possessed by the reader ... his attitude is always that the reader lacks this mastery only accidentally." While one can hardly hope to distill the essence of classic style into a sentence, Thomas and Turner describe it most succinctly as expression that is "clear and simple as the truth, but no clearer or simpler."

The second half of the book is a "museum" of classic prose, by Thomas Jefferson, Descartes, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Richard Feynman, Oscar Wilde, Philip Larkin, and many others, accompanied by commentary from the authors.

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