Classic prose style (by -395) was the main style of writing used by the New Yorker magazine in the 1900s (till 1992), the great French writers of the 1600s and Greek writers like Plato and Thucydides in the -300s.
It is simple, clear, graceful and timeless. It can be applied to any language in any age about any subject.
It does not come from some bag of tricks or trying for certain effects. Instead it comes from approaching writing like this:
- The purpose of writing is to present the truth.
- Writing is like a plate-glass window: it presents the truth clearly and does not get in the way. It does not call attention to itself.
- The writer writes simply, but not too simply.
- No word is wasted.
- The writer talks personally to the reader, one-on-one, as an equal, like in a letter to a friend. The writer does not put on airs or show off.
- The writer thinks and then writes.
- The writer presents his own thoughts and stands behind them.
- The writer does not express doubt in what he says. Any serious doubts must be cleared up before he begins to write.
- Thoughts stand on their own. They are presented as something complete.
- A piece of writing is self-contained and can be read from beginning to end without having to back up or look up anything.
- The truth is assumed to be:
- out there, independent of the writer, the reader and the words.
- knowable to those who apply reason, intelligence and experience and avoid self-interest and unquestioned opinions. Both writer and reader assume this to be true.
- The writer does not try to persuade the reader of anything: he simply presents the truth. The reader makes up his own mind about it.
- The writer assumes the reader is interested in what he has to say, no matter how strange the subject.
- Writing and reading are not done in a rush. The writer has time to write well and the reader to read carefully.
Much of this seems like common sense to me. That comes from reading the Greeks. But my thinking that the duty of the writer is to inform the reader in the easiest, quickest way possible comes from reading newspapers and my American education. It is the view of writing pushed by Strunk & White in “Elements of Style” (1959).
The classic style is not for everything. It is not the best style for:
- speeches – they try to persuade, show off and are not one-on-one;
- ads – they try to persuade and do not require close attention;
- memos – they are not between equals;
- email and how-to books – readers want to find out things quickly;
- newspaper articles – time is precious for both writer and reader
But the classic style is great for philosophy, science, history, biography, encyclopedias, magazine articles, guide books and letters. Most of the Declaration of Independence is written in it.
– Abagond, 2008.
- Prose Style Writing Guide
- The Museum – samples of classic prose
- Some books written in classic prose:
- Thucydides: History
- Plato: Apology
- Euclid: Elements
- Descartes: Discourse on Method
- Pascal: Provincial Letters
- Lavoisier: Elements of Chemistry
- La Rochefoucauld: Maxims; Memoirs
- C.S. Lewis: The Discarded Image
- Colin McEvedy: The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History
- John Keegan: The Second World War; Six Armies in Normandy
- Tony Judt: Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945
- The Michelin Green Guides
- Anglo American:
- Audubon Field Guides
- Mark Twain: Life on the Mississippi; Innocents Abroad
- Edith Wharton: Backward Glance
- Louise Brooks: Lulu in Hollywood
- James Watson: The Double Helix
- Richard Feynman: QED
- Clifford Geertz: Works and Lives
- Alan Simpson: Mastering WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS
- John Hersey: Hiroshima
- Bill McKibben: The End of Nature
- American academic prose
- American magazine writing
- ad copy
- rules for writing
- Could Shakespeare read our English?