Dr. Loewe’s Take on Prose Style

I’ll begin with a confession: it’s misleading to call this “my” take on prose style since I have derived it from Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner’s excellent book Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose. Other writers who have influenced my approach to teaching prose style are Richard Lanham, Bryan Garner, and John Trimble.

I teach expository writing. One of the goals I have for any writing class is to help students practice a general, transferable, useful, adaptable way of using writing to present ideas and information to readers. To try to achieve that goal, I require students to write in what Thomas and Turner call “the classic style.”

The classic style is a middle style between formal and informal. It aims to sound like educated speech. It is not a magic bullet because it is a performance consistent with the values of certain audiences, but of course not all possible audiences. But the audiences that expect and value classic style are important to you. These audiences include professors, employers, co-workers, the public, and other audiences that any college-educated person should be able to address effectively as part of their repertoire of performances. Classic style is the style that is most likely to pay off for you on many important occasions, so I owe you a duty to help you learn and practice it.

Whenever you write, you build a persona on paper and enact a particular point of view on your subject, your purpose, and your relationship to your audience. That point of view will affect your “stance” and, thus, your style. Writing is like acting–you play a role with a point of view.

If you take the stance that your subject is too hard or too dull to present in writing, that your purposes are avoiding point deductions and proving that you know some vocabulary words, and that your audience is hostile to your arguments, your writing is likely to come across as timid, passive, self-defeating, or pompous. Writing could become painful to produce, feel inauthentic, and be dull to read. Nobody wants that–not you, not your readers–nobody.

Classic style is the opposite of what Richard Lanham calls “The School Style”:

[The School Style] is compounded, in equal parts, of deference to a teacher . . ., of despair at filling up the required number of pages…, and of the mindlessness born of knowing that what you write may not be read with real attention. Above all, The School Style avoids unqualified assertion. It always leaves the back door open. If the teacher doesn’t agree, you can sneak out through an “it seems” for “is,” “may indeed have something in common with” for “results from,” “it could possibly be argued that” for “I [believe],” and so on. Rule 2 requires that you fill up the page as quickly as possible. Never “feel isolated”; always “suffer from an acute feeling of isolation.” Never “feel alienated”; always “feel like an outsider, alienated from the society of ‘normal’ men.” This desire to fill up the page works whenever we write from demand and not desire, of course, but it works insidiously, even when you are not deliberately trying to fill the page with bullshit.

You’ve no doubt felt the deadening effects of the School Style. You may have read or even written in it. You may have been taught that it was valuable in all situations and been rewarded for using it.

Unlike the School Style, classic style asks you to write as if you and your audience were equals, as if your motivation is simply to present something interesting and worthwhile to that equal, as if you were up to the task of doing so in writing, and as if the points you want to present can be illuminated by writing, once you do so.

John Trimble puts it this way:

  1. Write with the assumption that your reader is a companionable friend with a warm sense of humor and an appreciation of simple straightforwardness.
  2. Write as if you were actually talking to that friend, but talking with enough leisure to frame your thoughts concisely and interestingly.

You can see right away that classic style asks you to participate in an enabling fiction. After all, it’s often the case, especially with writing in school, that you and your audience are not equals, that you are writing only because you have to fulfill an assignment, that you in fact want to get something out of your audience (such as a grade), that you feel confused about your subject, or that you lack confidence. But no matter: here’s where the acting comes in. You act the part on paper–write as if you simply want to point out something worth pointing out to an equal. With practice, your “stance” (and thus style) can shift to one of pleasure, clarity, confidence, and shared understanding with your readers. That shift won’t happen overnight, but it will happen with consistent practice. Classic style is within anyone’s reach.

Another confession: I, too, sometimes write out of compulsion and not desire and in situations where I do want something out of my audience. I have to write reports, proposals, letters, funding requests, and the like. In my previous career, any writing I did for a judge involved an obvious power imbalance and risk of failure. Yet, the enabling fiction of classic style offers me the best chance at being effective despite the real circumstances giving rise to my need to write. Besides, playing the role of classic style is simply more fun than just forcing myself to sit down and produce words out of a grim sense of duty.

If you practice the enabling fiction of classic style, little by little your writing performances will transform into the kind of performances that lead readers to judge your writing as clear, strong, cohesive, and organized. Practice inhabiting the classic stance. Read your writing aloud. If you’d never say it, don’t write it. Try again. Ask for help.

Remember: classic style is not a magic bullet (nothing about writing is; sorry). You will still have to do your homework and know what you are writing about. Classic style does not warrant bluffing your way through an argument or skimming over evidence by just sounding clear. But classic style has the best odds of giving you a chance to perform the part of a credible, effective communicator for multiple important audiences.

If you want to read more about classic style, here are a few resources: