F. L. Lucas on clarity and brevity

A reference to F. L. Lucas (1894–1967) led me to his essay On the Fascination of Style, which is likely to be of interest to writers and editors, particularly those who practise the plain style.

A literary critic, poet and professor, Lucas was greatly concerned with how we express ourselves and how, if we apply ourselves, we can do so more effectively.

[T]hough one cannot teach people to write well, one can sometimes teach them to write rather better. One can give a certain number of hints, which often seem boringly obvious – only experience shows they are not.

Steeped as he was in the classics and traditional literary styles, Lucas held some ideas that apply especially to very formal writing and will seem old-fashioned by contemporary attitudes. (Anthony Campbell, reviewing Lucas’s book Style, says the author “didn’t much care for the typewriter”.)

For example: though Lucas admired Americans’ talent for imagery, he “wince[d] at their fondness for slang”, which to him seemed “a kind of linguistic fungus; as poisonous, and as short-lived, as toadstools”. Prejudiced not only against slang but against an entire kingdom of life!

But his insights on style mostly hold up very well. After six years in a war department, where wordiness could choke communication and opacity could have dire consequences, he emerged “with more passion than ever for clarity and brevity, more loathing than ever for the obscure and the verbose”.

Clarity and brevity, he felt, follow from one of the two cornerstones of good style: respect for readers. (The other cornerstone is that the writer “should respect truth and himself; therefore honesty”.) But while clarity and brevity are a good beginning, they are

only a beginning. By themselves, they may remain bare and bleak. When Calvin Coolidge, asked by his wife what the preacher had preached on, replied “Sin,” and, asked what the preacher had said, replied “He was against it,” he was brief enough. But one hardly envies Mrs. Coolidge.

Though Lucas acknowledged the world’s increasing complexity, he wondered “how many of our complexities remain futile, how many of our artificialities false”:

Simplicity too can be subtle – as the straight lines of a Greek temple, like the Parthenon at Athens, are delicately curved, in order to look straighter still.

You can read the rest of On the Fascination of Style here.

14 Responses to F. L. Lucas on clarity and brevity

  1. Marc Leavitt says:

    Stan:
    When I was in college(AmE), I was drunk with words. I learnt to write complexly in slavish adoration of the great Victorian essayists and their ilk. When I became a newspaper reporter, and later, an editor, my prolixity went the way of all flesh. I internalized Shakespeare’s “Brevity is the sole of wit.” Perhaps unfortunately, I iternalized it so well that I can only approah my earlier style by excruciating effort. The reason for this meander? The writer must address his audience, giving them some orf what they expect, but in the end, if he fails to make them understand, HE has failed. Brevity and clarity always trump complexity and opacity.

  2. BeSlayed says:

    There are a few (I assume) OCR errors in the linked text, including, for instance, “i-ne” for “me” (“What is all this to i-ne?”). The most amusing is though:

    “With six characters involved even in a simple t&te@-t6te, no wonder we fall into muddles and misunderstandings.”

    {t, &, e, @, -, 6} (cardinality=6).

  3. Stan says:

    Marc: I suspect most writers in their teens or 20s go through a phase of overwriting. I know I did, indulging in the most pretentious verbiage. Then I learned to whittle, and I kept whittling, and found that it generally did good to strip away the flourishes and embellishments. Complexity in prose is sometimes unavoidable, but it can be made approchable; more often it’s used as a smokescreen for empty guff or B.S.

    BeSlayed: I noticed those, and assumed the same. “t&te@-t6te” was particularly enjoyable: if there’d been “ten characters involved”, we would have quite the recursive joke.

  4. johnwcowan says:

    If you really believe that, Marc, why didn’t you write “To be short and clear is always better than not”? True, my version has two more words than yours, but only because yours uses Latinate abstracta. Brevity and clarity are rhetorical choices, not inherently superior to complexity and opacity, but only as applied to a particular purpose.

    Lucas seems to recognize this principle in parts of his essay, but then lapses repeatedly. It is not like Christy Mahon that they talk in universities, but there’s no pity in it, for it would not be in decorum to do so, any more than one ought to make love (as it used to be called before that phrase changed meaning) sounding like the Professor of Greek in full cry.

    Reading the Addison example, my immediate reaction was that anyone can see when he, his, him refer to Addison’s “learned friend” and when they refer to Mr. Swan, but seemingly not; it is Swan, not the country schoolmaster, that Lucas a few paragraphs later accuses of flaunting jargon! Clearly he had not read Addison with attention (vide Johnson on Camoes). And if we remember Johnson today, it is for what Boswell made of his talk, and not for anything he wrote save a few definitions cherished by the few.

  5. Charles Sullivan says:

    Mark Twain, the first genuine homegrown American writer used slang well, so I wouldn’t agree with Lucas that the American fondness for slang is “a kind of linguistic fungus; as poisonous, and as short-lived, as toadstools”.

    He sounds like a grouchy old fuck. No doubt he has redeeming value, but that’s just a stupid remark.

    Here are just three of Mark Twain’s rules for writers, which could easily have been uttered by your man Lucas:

    An author should:
    12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
    13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
    14. Eschew surplusage.

  6. Stan says:

    Charles: Yes, his remark about slang was silly and naive, and does no credit to a 20th-century writer. William Dwight Whitney, whom I quoted in a recent post at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, said slang combines “exuberance of mental activity, and the natural delight of language-making”. Lucas, alas, failed to notice its great significance and merits.

  7. wisewebwoman says:

    Your post put me in mind of Michael Chabon’s “Wonder Boys” where the protagonist had the opposite of writers’ block. Reams of verbiage pouring everywhere.
    I’ve found that word count restrictions by some editors can make one quite anorexic.
    XO
    WWW.

  8. Claude says:

    Allow me (again) to mention Nicolas Boileau (1636-1711). I wouldn’t be surprised if F.L. Lucas knew “L’Art Poétique” well as he seemed to have the same train of thought about clarity and brevity. I wouldn’t accuse him from having borrowed from the French mentor but it’s a bit uncanny to be given similar “hints” in English as were pounded into me in my French youth.

    The one I often wish I could forget:
    “Qui ne sait se borner ne sut jamais écrire.”

  9. Claude says:

    Correction:…. as he seemed to have had….

  10. Stan says:

    WWW: Word count requirements are a mixed blessing, I find: useful in forcing us to strip away all filler, but awkward sometimes when a piece of writing is as long as it should be, and it takes a disproportionate amount of work to bring it under the limit.

    Claude, you have lifelong permission to mention Boileau whenever you like. I suppose there’s a good chance Lucas read him, in which case he would have absorbed some of the hints and lessons.

  11. John Cowan says:

    Typography, alas, is inflexible, except online. WWWW, the word you want is logorrhea.

  12. seo says:

    Use the right word, not its second cousin.

  13. Stan says:

    Thanks for letting me know, LRS. That’s good to hear.

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