How to have style
By J. C.
We’re all writers nowadays, living in the era of the blog, the age of anti-elitism, the epoch of self-publishing. Editors at mainstream houses do many things, but editing isn’t always one of them. And yet, and yet . . . a line divides the good writer from the late-night assailant of the defenceless keyboard. To put it another way, what separates writers from people who write is style. A good start in the cultivation of a style would be to avoid phrases such as “and yet, and yet”.
There are many guides to writing well. The best emphasize the writer’s duty to serve the language. F. L. Lucas was mindful of this and the parallel objective of serving the reader. In Style: The art of writing well, first published in 1955, Lucas grouped a clutch of chapters around the heading “Courtesy to Readers”. The first courtesy is Clarity, the second Brevity, the third Urbanity. A subsequent chapter begins: “No manual of style that I know of has a word to say of good humour; and yet, for me, a lack of it can sometimes blemish all the literary beauties and blandishments ever taught”.
Both humour and courtesy are illustrated by an anecdote involving Alfred de Vigny. After his reception into the Académie française, he asked a friend for an opinion on the speech he had just delivered. “Superb, though perhaps a little long”, hazarded the tactful fellow. Vigny hastened to reassure him. “Not at all. I don’t feel the least bit tired."
Lucas attributed his liking for concision to his wartime work in intelligence at Bletchley Park. “Too many books are large simply from lack of patience – it would have taken too long to make them short.” He preferred “the brevity of strength and restraint” to the fecundity of “vigorous genius” found in Balzac and Walter Scott, but was happy to add that “brevity, like clarity, has its limitations . . . . It is not good to feed horses on nothing but oats”. As for Lucas’s own style, a comment on a passage from Jeremy Bentham’s Fragment on Government gives an idea of what to expect: “Much as I loathe that ubiquitous pismire of a word – ‘the’, Bentham’s omissions of it here too much suggest a telegram”. Style, which began life as a series of lectures at Cambridge, is reissued by Harriman House of Petersfield, Hampshire, at £14.99.