Why You Should Learn the “Classic Style” of Public Writing – Poynter
There is an important and influential type of public writing that scholars have described as the “classical style.” The classic text to teach this style is titled “Clear and Simple as the Truth”, written by Francis-NoÃ«l Thomas and Mark Turner.
This paragraph on the back cover serves as a good introduction:
For over a decade, Clear and simple as the truth has guided readers to view style not as an elegant accessory to effective prose, but as its very heart. (The authors) present writing as an intellectual activity, not as a passive application of verbal skills. In the classic style, the motive is truth, the goal is presentation, reader and writer are intellectually equal, and the occasion is informal. This general style of presentation is everywhere at home, from business notes to personal letters and magazine articles to student essays.
You wouldn’t think that a so-called âclassicâ writing style could be versatile as well, but it is. For our interests, it often serves as a tool for civic clarity and public understanding. As a test, I looked for examples of this in a museum, a place usually designed for us to see and observe, but a place that requires the creation of thousands of texts – usually short – to fulfill their mission and purpose. .
My hometown, St. Petersburg, Florida, has grown into a city of museums over the past decades. The Imagine museum and the Chihuly museum present an astonishing collection of glass art; the Florida Holocaust Museum is a place that moves the mind and the heart; and the Salvador DalÃ museum, well, what can I say, it’s surreal.
Newcomer to the block is the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art. When it opened, it was criticized for the representations in Western art of Native Americans. That said, the great art galleries created by Indigenous artists stand out for their creativity and authenticity.
The first texts I encountered on entering the museum were two âActivity Guides for Young Peopleâ. I am not embarrassed to say that I have learned a lot from the guide created for ages 6 and up. Hey, I’m old enough to get the first few doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and to learn from this guide.
The three-page guide offers three lessons on how artists use shape and form, color and line. Here is a taste:
There are two kinds of shapes. Geometric shapes are precise and uniform, like circles, squares, and triangles. Organic shapes are free-form and irregular, like rocks, leaves, and clouds.
The creators of the guide leave plenty of white space for easy reading and add helpful illustrations for quicker learning. Better still are the creative activities, starting with the image of a red and yellow stagecoach: âFind this stagecoach in the Frontier Gallery. What shapes do you see? Design your own unique stagecoach. Try to use geometric and organic shapes. It would be an ambitious project for a 7-year-old, not to mention a 73-year-old man.
The second guide is intended for ages 11 and up and introduces more difficult concepts, such as perspective:
Perspective is used to create a sense of depth in a design. There are two types of viewpoint:
Nonlinear perspective: Position or overlap elements in a drawing to create depth. Items placed higher on a canvas appear farther away. Elements that overlap in front of others appear closer.
Linear perspective (one point): Parallel lines converge at a single vanishing point to give the illusion of depth.
Illustrations and diagrams are essential for learning. But let’s not ignore the way the authors translate technical visual arts jargon for multigenerational audiences.
If you were to follow me to a museum gallery, that would amuse you. While others take a step back to enjoy the visual art experience, my nose is quite close to the accompanying block of text. My style is to glance at the image, read the text, then step back and step into the image.
Take, for example, this text accompanying a table titled “Bronco breakBy American artist Thomas Blackshear II:
Oil on canvas
At the height of the beef industry in the late 1800s, historians estimate that African Americans made up about 25 percent of working cows. Thousands of people started out as slaves on ranches in Texas, where they developed skills in ranching that would later make them invaluable to the burgeoning ranching economy. After the Civil War (1861-1865) with few job opportunities available for freed colored men, many found work as cowboys. The role was not an escape from racism, as black cowboys were often given the more difficult jobs, but they generally had more autonomy than former slaves in other professions.
While their contributions to Western expansion have been important, black cowboys have long been overlooked in the larger narrative of American history and representations in art and pop culture. Fortunately, the dialogue around diversity in the West has brought to light more African-American perspectives in recent decades. Today’s black cowboys – and cowgirls – have carried on family traditions of horseback riding and lassoing for generations.
With a successful career as an illustrator since the early 1980s, Blackshear portrays Western themes with expressive lighting and mood sensitivity. Here he pays homage to the intrinsic role black cowboys have played in the success of the West. In 2020, Blackshear was inducted into the prestigious Hall of Fame of the Society of Illustrators. Former inductees include NC Wyeth, John James Audubon, Frederic Remington, and Charles Russell.
I am so impressed with this prose and other “classical texts” that I find in informational and presentation books such as guides to animals, stars, architecture, important places and much more. . In most of the examples, the author does not use the first person, but the voice that emerges from the text seems helpful and conversational, imagining a reader who might have questions.
It would be useful here to let researchers Thomas and Turner describe the character and effects of the so-called “classical style”:
The idiom of classical style is the voice of conversation. The writer adopts the pose of an almost perfectly efficient speaker whose sentences are the product of the voice rather than of a writing instrument. â¦ The classic style is inspired by speech and can be read aloud correctly the first time.
In speech, an expression disappears the moment it is spoken and has only one instant to enter the mind and reach its place in memory. Since classical writing claims to be speaking, it never forces the reader to look forward or back; he never admits that the reader is in a position to do so. Each sentence is presented as if it only has one chance – now – to do its job. Of course, a reader can actually reread a passage of classical prose several times. But the classical writer never recognizes this possibility, neither explicitly nor implicitly.
The ideal classical style speech seems to be spontaneous and motivated by the need to inform a listener of something.
A passage in the classic style – delivered either orally or in printed form – has certain stylistic requirements, or, if not requirements, then advantages. Even though there is the feel to one side of an intelligent conversation, there is no sign of the first person or the second, which in other cases would signal some type of informality. The third person works better.
The researchers insist that writing in the classic way avoids digressions, detours, even print transitions such as “as we mentioned earlier” or “looking to the future”. Instead, the style is simple and confident, the information delivered with an authority that doesn’t sound bossy or pedantic.
- Start paying more attention to public (or published) texts designed to inform and educate about things a curious person might want to know.
- Look for the presence (or absence) of the first or second person, but pay special attention to third-person texts that avoid âIâ or âyouâ.
- If you think you’ve found a text written in the classic style, read it aloud. You should be able to read it without difficulty.
- Even if you present information in the classic style – without using “you” – imagine an audience of curious people. Think about the questions they might ask you.
- As always, read your text aloud, even if it is not written for oral presentation. Read a draft to another person and ask them how it sounds. Is it clear on first reading? Does he feel confident and assertive?