I know how to tell you the truth in a sentence so dense and complicated and full of technical jargon that you won’t understand it. I also know – with my clearest and most compelling prose – how to tell you a malicious lie.
This twofold reality – this seemingly virtuous clarity can be used for ill intent – is at the heart of the ethics and practice of public writing.
The author who most convincingly exposed this problem was a scholar named Hugh Kenner, and he most vividly presented it in an essay entitled “The Politics of the Plain Style.” Originally published in the New York Times Book Review in 1985, Kenner incorporated it, along with 63 other essays, into a book called “Mazes.”
When I started reading the essay, I thought it would confirm my longstanding bias that in a democracy, the simple style is most worthy, especially when used by public writers in the public interest.
The bourgeois virtues of simple style can well be argued, but connoisseur has made a nifty argument that convinced me that some fleas, large fleas, come with the dog.
A disappointing truth is that unadorned, no-nonsense writing style is a favorite of liars, including liars in high positions. Make that into liars, propagandists, and conspiracy theorists. We have enough of these in the 21st century to make citing examples superfluous. And the last thing I want to do is republish perishable texts, also to condemn them.
When ordinary citizens receive messages that are written in high style – full of abstractions, fancy effects, and abstractions – their BS detector intervenes. This beautiful term, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, describes a form of skepticism that many of us feel when we are deceived or lied to. So warned, you can dismiss me as a flatterer or a mischievous intellectual who works at the Poynter Institute!
As soon as I tell you, you will look me in the eye and pat me on the shoulder, one of the people, one of you.
Literary styles and standards change over the centuries, including the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. The so-called liars cited by Kenner include famous authors such as Daniel Defoe and George Orwell. Both, he argues, wrote fiction masquerading as non-fiction. The way they convinced us that Robinson Crusoe was actually alive, or that Orwell actually shot an elephant or witnessed a hanging was to write it directly. That is, to make it sound truthful.
If public writers are to honestly adopt a simple style, they need to understand what makes it work. Connoisseur argues:
- That the simple style is a style, even if it reads as simple, undecorated.
- That it is seldom mastered and expressed as literature except by the likes of Jonathan Swift, HL Mencken and Orwell.
- That it is an invention, a device, something that was invented to achieve a certain effect.
- That it exists in ambiguity, the perfect form of transmission for democratic practices, but also for fictions, inventions and false reports.
- That it makes the author sound truthful even if he isn’t.
If you want an honest, simple style, what are its key components? Let us give the floor to connoisseurs:
Plain style is a populist style. … Homely diction (general language) is their trademark, also one-two-three-syntax (subject, verb, object), the openness and the skill to be grounded outside of the language in the so-called fact – the area in which a The convict can be watched silently avoiding a puddle, and your prose will report the observation and no one will doubt it.
Kenner is alluding to Orwell’s essay in which he observes a hanging and observes the weirdness of the convict who refuses to wet his feet as he prepares to climb the steps to the gallows. “Such prose simulates the words that anyone who was there and was awake could later have spontaneously spoken. As we have seen, the spontaneous on a written page can only be an invention. “
The simple style feigns a sincere observer. That is his great advantage to convince. Behind his mask of calm openness, the writer with political intentions can address people with apparent disinterest who pride themselves on their factual knowledge of the facts. And the language is so complicated that he may have to fool it to clear it up. Whether or not Orwell ever witnessed a hanging, we are sure what he thinks of the custom.
Orwell has been a literary hero of mine since reading Animal Farm as a kid. I jumped from his overt novels like 1984 to his essays on politics and language, paying only occasional attention to his non-fiction and narrative essays. I’ve always assumed that Orwell shot an elephant and witnessed a hanging because, well, I wanted to believe it and accepted a social contract between writer and reader that if a non-fiction writer wrote a scene that would two brothers arguing about a restaurant, then it wasn’t two sisters laughing in a discotheque.
Whether Orwell wrote from experience in these cases I cannot say, but he always admitted that he wrote for a political motive by which he could justify what is sometimes referred to as poetic freedom.
Writing to reach a “higher truth” is, of course, part of a centuries-old literary and religious tradition. When Christian authors in the past wrote the life and death stories of saints – hagiography – they were less concerned with the literal truth of history than with some kind of allegorical truth: that the martyrdom of St. Agnes of Rome an echo of the suffering of Jesus on the cross and thus a way to eternal life.
I am writing this as a lifelong Catholic with no disrespect or irony. Such writing was a form of propaganda and is where we get the word: a spread of the faith.
Orwell’s belief was in democratic institutions threatened by tyrannies of the right and left in the twentieth century – fascism and communism. Seeing British imperialism as corruption, he felt a moral obligation to tell stories that made that system look bad, including one where as a member of the Imperial Police in Burma he had to kill an elephant, an act he did came repentance. With the simple style, Orwell makes his essay so real I believe it. In my professional life I have argued against this idea of “higher truth”, disregarding the facts, knowing how slippery those facts can be. But Orwell knew whether or not he shot that elephant, so there is no ambiguity.
At the dawn of the digital age, a writer’s inventions – even those with good intentions – are often easily exposed, resulting in a loss of authority and credibility that can harm a good cause. In the face of so many Holocaust deniers, why invent a story about the Holocaust when there are still so many facts to tell?
There is an important lesson here for all public writers: If I can think of a strong plot and compelling characters, I don’t have to make up a story and sell it as a non-fiction book. I can write it as a novel and sell it as a script! I have not yet heard an argument that “Sophie’s Choice” is unworthy because it was invented rather than reported.
I say that all forms of writing and communication potentially fall under the heading of public writing. This includes fiction, poetry, film, even the music texts that are marked as such: “Say it as it is”, the song says, “Do not be afraid. Let your conscience be your guide. “
In the end, we need reports that we can trust, and even in the age of disinformation and fake news, it’s best delivered in a simple style – with honesty as the backbone. Writing in a simple style is a strategy; Civil clarity and credibility are the effects.
Here are the lessons:
- When writing reports, when you want your audience to understand, write in the simple style – a kind of middle ground between an ornate high style and a low style that leans towards slang
- The simple style requires demanding work. Simple doesn’t mean easy. Prefer the straightforward to the technical: shorter words, sentences, paragraphs in the places of greatest complexity.
- Keep subjects and verbs together in the main clause. Put the main clause first.
- More frequent words work better.
- Simply on the literary effects; use only the most transparent metaphors, nothing to stop the reader and draw their attention.
- Think of 1-2-3 syntax, subject / verb / object: “Public writers prefer the simple style.”