Short Classical Essays


The last writing style we’re going to look at is what has been called “classic style”.

It’s quite different from the other styles we’ve looked at, and it’s gotten some buzz recently with the publication of Steven Pinker’s book The Sense of Style, subtitled “the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century”.

In the book he strongly advocates for classic style as an ideal to which academic writers should aspire.

In this video I’m going to try to summarize what classic style is and show how moving your writing in the direction of classic style can improve your academic writing.

Pinker is borrowing from Thomas and Turner’s analysis of classic style, Clear and Simple as the Truth, so the presentation I give here will end up borrowing from both of these sources.

Classic Style

The model scene for classic style is one person speaking to another, a conversation between equals.

The writer uses prose as a window to describe a world, and to draw attention to the objects and actions going on within this world.

The assertions, the claims that the writer wants to make, are depicted in this world, and the writer tries to get the audience, the reader, to see what is depicted by positioning the reader so that he or she can see what the writer sees.

The writer wants to reveal some truth about the world, and their goal is to get the reader to see this truth, through a conversational dialogue about the world that the writer has created, but that is imaginatively accessible to both of them.

This is the discursive setup for classic style.

There are a few things to say about this.

First, this is verydifferent from romantic style, where prose is viewed as a MIRROR to the SELF, not a WINDOW to a world beyond the self.

Classic style aims at the presentation of an objective, disinterested truth about the world — a truth that can be confirmed by anyone with a suitable background and position to see it.

Second, this is also verydifferent from reflexive style, where the author wants to draw the reader’s attention to the act of writing itself, and to the challenges the writer faces.

The classic writer wants the reader to see through the text — hence the metaphor of a window — into the world depicted by the text, because that’s the subject of the writing, not the writing itself. You don’t want the reader to notice smudges or cracks in the window, or even that the world is being framed by a window — you just want them to pay attention to the scene depicted through the window.

Third, classic style is different from practical style.

Classic and practical style have a common interest in clarity and directness in writing, but they value this for different reasons.

In practical style, clarity is a virtue because its primary goal is to be easily understood by the reader, so that it can help the reader with whatever practical problem they’re facing.

Classic style isn’t concerned with solving a practical problem for the reader.

When writing in classic style, we aim for clarity because the writer sees their writing as a transparent medium for the presentation of truth.

In classic style we value clarity and simplicity because TRUTH is clear and simple — this is a presupposition of the conceptual stance that grounds classic style. Hence the title of Thomas and Turner’s book on classic style, Clear and Simple as the Truth.

A fourth point I want to note about classic style is that the goal of writing in this style is a kind of performance.

When the writer is able to create this world and successfully lead the reader through the scene, that’s a kind of artfully constructed performance.

It has in common with many other forms of artistic performance that it doesn’t want to draw attention to the writer’s process of creating the performance, or the history of the writer’s struggles to master the performance.

An analogy with a concern performance is insightful, I think.

I happen to like what watching talented musicians rehearse. I’ve watched concert soloists rehearse with an orchestra, where you get to see them break a piece of music down, play sections over and over until they get it just right, experiment with different approaches — it’s really wonderful to watch the process.

But during the actual concert, the goal of the musicians on stage is to present the finished product as a singular piece of music. They don’t want you to be thinking about the practicing and the creative experiments and the tweaking. They don’t want you to be aware of the countless hours of thought and sweat that had to lead up to the final performance.

What they want is for the audience to experience the performance and be transported by it, have it speak to them and move them. They want the performance to be confident and look effortless, even if the truth is very different.

And this gets us to the final point I want to make about classic style.

The goal of writing in classic style is a kind of performance that presents all truths are expressible and knowable in the way described, that the truths being presented are objective features of the world, and the writer is confident in making these assertions without hedging or qualifying.

But the writer knows that this is a performance, it’s a pretense.

The real writer — you and I, sitting at our laptops struggling to find the right words, we don’t have to believe any of this. But when we choose to write in the classic style, we’re choosing to embrace these fictions, like an actor on stage playing a role, or a musician performing during a concert.

You can be as skeptical and uncertain and philosophically sophisticated as you want in real life, but when writing in the classic mode you hide that skepticism and uncertainty and philosophical sophistication for the sake of presenting a truth in as clear and compelling a way as possible.

Any writing style requires adopting a persona of some kind — this is the persona of the classic writer.


Here’s a summary of the main points.

  • Classic style views prose as a window to the world.
  • The model scene is one where the writer and the reader are in conversation.
  • The writer’s goal is to depict a world that presents a truth, and to position the reader in such a way that the reader can see what the writer sees, and thereby confirm the truth that the writer is presenting.
  • Truth is understood to be clear, simple and verifiable.
  • Classic style is a performative style, where it’s understood by the writer that the truth may not be clear or simple, but when writing in the classic mode the writer aims to present truth as clear and simple and verifiable — this the persona that the writer adopts, a presupposition of the conceptual stance that grounds classic style.

In the next video we’ll look at some examples of classic writing and how classic style can help improve your academic writing.

As chosen by Molly McArdle

We asked Molly McArdle, writer, editor, avid reader, reviewer, and the brains behind the excellent Library Journal and The Rumpus tumblrs to pick ten favourites essays. This is what she chose:

“Atchafalaya” by John McPhee - This essay changed the way I felt about essays. I have always loved the form: it’s capacity for loopiness, it’s friendliness to digression, the space it made for beautiful language. But here, McPhee proves that the essay can do so much more: it can build worlds.

“Mister Lytle” by John Jeremiah Sullivan - There was a time in which I worked at a job that did not require me to do very much at all, and so I spent my time, tucked away in a tiny corner cubicle, reading. I cried when I read this, and my coworkers thought something terrible had happened to me, but it was just Mister Lytle, raccoon’s sharpened bone-penis and all. John Jeremiah Sullivan writes about the South like a native who’s stricken by amnesia: he has no shortage of not only familiar affection but also bewilderment, even wonder.

“What We Hunger For” by Roxane Gay - I’ve been reading Roxane Gay since she took on the overwhelming whiteness of the Best American Short Stories series in 2010 over at HTML Giant. (She was, delightfully, included in this past year’s edition.) However, this essay—one, if you follow Roxane’s work, you’ve probably read too—was a game changer. There are lines that when I reread them give me goosebumps. “Sometimes, when you least expect it, you become the girl in the woods” and “You think you are alone until you find books about girls like you.” How many girls thought they were alone until they found an essay like this one?

“Tiny Beautiful Things” by Cheryl Strayed - I am a member of the church of Sugar. I regularly quote her in long, tough, sad conversations with my friends; and they quote her back at me. This essay of hers is one of the most important to me. (Little surprise: I have seen it make a whole room full of young women weep.) Everything in it, from “Stop worrying about whether you’re fat” to “Be brave enough to break your own heart,” from “Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet” to, especially, “Acceptance is a small, quiet room” speaks plainly and bravely and with heart. There is really nothing else like it.

“The Unlikely Influence of Dungeons & Dragons” by TNC - The reasons I love Ta-Nehisi Coates are too numerous to list here, but suffice it to say I’ve always felt he was a nerdy, inner-city kindred spirit: him reading the Monsters Manual in 1980s Baltimore, me reading Volo’s Guide to the Sword Coast in 1990s DC. I love this post (even though its really a transcript) in particular because he articulates what “high” and “low” culture have in common: beauty.

“The Death of the Moth” by Virginia Woolf - I read this in high school and it remains one of my favorite things by Virginia Woolf. It is aggressively lovely, a kind of poem. “What he could do he did. Watching him, it seemed as if a fiber, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life.”

“Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences” by Mark Twain - There are few things in this world I love as much as a really (effectively) mean review, and this is perhaps the finest of the form. This take down of James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer, which Mark Twain clearly loathed, is epic. “Personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others,” he explains, “this detail has often been overlooked” in Deerslayer.

“My Dungeon Shook” by James Baldwin - I love the love in this essay, the love and pain that seeps out of Baldwin’s letter: love for a brother, love for a nephew, pain for what the world has done to them, for what they have lost because of it. Here he says about his brother, “No one’s hand can wipe away those tears he sheds invisibly today which one hears in his laughter and in his speech and in his songs.”

“Chamber of Secrets: The Sorcery of Angela Carter" by Marina Werner - I love fairy tales, literary criticism, and sonorous, pulpy prose. This essay, about Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, has it all: "What reader does not explore with her these passages and woodland tracks? Who does not feel the Beast’s dark carriage like a hearse rumbling towards his eerily uninhabited domain? And who does not sense, through her powerful evocations, the pricking of thorns, the jaw-cracking stringiness of granny, the jangling of bed springs, the licking of a big cat’s tongue, the soft luxurious furs and velvets and skin, and the piercing contrasts with ice, glass, metal?”

“How Men Fight for Their Lives” by Saeed Jones - This is a story I first heard my friend Saeed tell at a party. He held the room with it, it tilted on his axis. It was supposed to be wild, something crazy and, because crazy, funny—but there was always this dark, unsettling thread running through it, even during his magnetic, hilarious jujitsu demonstration. Here the darkness is not a thread but the fabric. Who reading this hasn’t felt the same way, when Saeed says (my favorite line): “I need you to know that, in that unlit, wood-floored room, I was more interested in the story of my life than my life.”

Make sure you check out Molly’s site for stacks of great writing and reviews, or head to the Library Journal and The Rumpus tumblrs for all kinds of literary goodness.

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