Why You Should Learn the “Classic Style” of Public Writing

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 entitled “Clear and simple as the truth”, written by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner.

This paragraph on the back cover serves as a good introduction:

For more than a decade, Plain and simple as the truth guided readers to consider style not as an elegant accessory to effective prose, but as its very heart. (The authors) present writing as an intellectual activity and not as a passive application of verbal skills. In the classical style, motive is truth, purpose is presentation, reader and writer are intellectually equal, and occasion is informal. This general style of presentation is at home everywhere, from business memos to personal letters and from magazine articles to student essays.

You wouldn’t think that a writing style called “classic” could also be versatile, 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 – usually short – texts to fulfill their mission and purpose. .

My hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida has over the past few decades become a city of museums. The Imagine Museum and the Chihuly Museum feature an amazing collection of glass art; the Florida Holocaust Museum is a place that stirs the mind and heart; and the Salvador Dalí Museum, well, what can I say, it’s surreal.

The newcomer is the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art. When it opened, it was criticized for depictions in Western art of Native Americans. That said, the major art galleries created by Aboriginal artists stand out for their creativity and authenticity.

The first texts I encountered upon entering the museum were two “Activity Guides for Young People”. I’m not shy to say that I learned a lot from the guide created for ages 6 and up. Hey, I’m old enough to get early 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’s a taste:

There are two types of shapes. Geometric shapes are precise and uniform, such as circles, squares and triangles. Organic shapes are free-form and irregular, such as rocks, leaves, and clouds.

The guide’s creators leave lots of white space for easy reading and add helpful illustrations for faster learning. Even better are the creative activities, starting with the image of a red and yellow stagecoach: “Find 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, let alone a 73-year-old.

The second guide is for ages 11 and up and introduces more complex concepts, such as perspective:

Perspective is used to create a sense of depth in a design. There are two types of perspectives:

Nonlinear perspective: Position or layer elements in a design 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 into a single vanishing point to give the illusion of depth.

Illustrations and diagrams are essential for learning. But let’s not ignore how the authors translate the technical jargon of the visual arts for a multigenerational audience.

If you were to follow me to a museum gallery, you would be amused. While others step back to enjoy the visual experience of art, 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 painting titled “Bronco Break” by American artist Thomas Blackshear II:

Oil on canvas

At the height of the cattle industry in the late 1800s, historians estimate that African Americans made up about 25% of working cowherds. Thousands began as slaves on Texas ranches, where they developed skills in caring for livestock that would later make them invaluable to the booming ranching economy. After the Civil War (1861-1865), with few employment opportunities for freed men of color, many found work as cowboys. The role was no escape from racism, as black cowboys were often given the toughest jobs, but they generally had more autonomy than former slaves in other professions.

Although their contributions to Western expansion were significant, black cowboys have long been overlooked in the larger narrative of American history and depictions in art and pop culture. Fortunately, the dialogue around diversity in the West has shed more light on African-American perspectives in recent decades. Today’s black cowboys – and cowgirls – have carried on family traditions of riding and roping for generations.

With a successful career as an illustrator since the early 1980s, Blackshear depicts Western themes with expressive lighting and sensitivity to mood. Here, he pays homage to the intrinsic role black cowboys played in the success of the West. In 2020, Blackshear was inducted into the prestigious Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. Past inductees include NC Wyeth, John James Audubon, Frederic Remington and Charles Russell.

I am so impressed with this prose and other “classic texts” that I find in informative and introductory works such as guides to animals, stars, architecture, important places and much more . In most examples, the author does not use first person, but the voice that emerges from the text sounds helpful and conversational, imagining a reader who might have questions.

It would be helpful here to let scholars Thomas and Turner describe the character and effects of the so-called “classical style”:

The idiom of the classic style is the voice of conversation. The writer adopts the pose of a speaker of almost perfect efficiency whose sentences are the product of the voice rather than a writing instrument. … The classic style is inspired by the spoken word and can be read aloud correctly the first time.

In speech, an expression disappears the moment it is spoken and has only a moment to enter the mind and reach its place in memory. Since classical writing pretends to be a speech, it never compels the reader to look forward or backward; he never admits that the reader is in a position to do so. Each sentence is presented as if it only had one chance – now – to do its job. Of course, a reader may actually skim through a passage of classic prose multiple times. But the classical writer never recognizes this possibility either explicitly or implicitly.

Ideal classical-style speech appears to be spontaneous and driven by the need to inform a listener about something.

A passage in the classical style—pronounced orally or in print—has certain stylistic requirements, or, if not requirements, then advantages. Although there is the one-sided feel of intelligent conversation, there is no hint of first or second person, which in other cases would signal a type of informality. Third person works best.

The researchers insist that writing in a classical way avoids digressions, detours, even transitions of impression such as “as we mentioned earlier” or “looking ahead”. Instead, the style is straightforward and confident, the information provided with an authority that doesn’t sound overbearing or pedantic.

  • Start paying more attention to public (or published) texts designed to inform and educate about things an inquisitive person might want to know.
  • Look for the presence (or absence) of the first or second person, but pay particular attention to third person texts that avoid “I” or “you”.
  • If you think you have found a text written in the classical 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 an 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 authoritative?

Scott R. Banks