July 27, 2021

I know how to tell you the truth in a sentence so dense and complicated and filled with jargon that you will not be able to comprehend. I also know — using my clearest and most engaging prose — how to tell you a vicious lie.

This dual reality — that seemingly virtuous plainness can be used for ill intent — lies at the heart of the ethics and practice of public writing.

The author who revealed this problem most persuasively was a scholar named Hugh Kenner, and he introduced it most cogently in an essay entitled “The Politics of the Plain Style.” Originally published in The New York Times Book Review in 1985, Kenner included it with 63 other essays in a book called “Mazes.”

When I began reading the essay, I thought it would confirm my longstanding bias that in a democracy, the plain style is most worthy, especially when used by public writers in the public interest.

A good case can be made for the civic virtues of the plain style, but Kenner, in a sophisticated argument, has persuaded me that some fleas, big fleas, come with the dog.

A disappointing truth is that an undecorated, straightforward writing style is a favorite of liars, including liars in high places. Make that liars, propagandists and conspiracy theorists. We have had enough of those in the 21st century to make citing examples unnecessary. And the last thing I would want to do is to republish pernicious texts, even for the purpose of condemning them.

When rank and file citizens receive messages written in the high style — full of abstractions, fancy effects, and abstractions — their BS detector tends to kick in. That nice term, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, describes a form of skepticism that many of us need to sense when we are being fooled or lied to. So alerted, you can then dismiss me as a blowhard or a pointy-headed intellectual who works at the Poynter Institute!

If I tell it to you straight, you will look me in the eye and pat me on the back, a person of the people, one of you.

Literary styles and standards shift with the centuries, including the lines between fiction and nonfiction. Among the so-called liars cited by Kenner are famous authors such as Daniel Defoe and George Orwell. Both, he argues, wrote fiction that posed as nonfiction. The way they persuaded us that Robinson Crusoe actually lived or that Orwell actually shot an elephant or witnessed a hanging was to write it straight. That is, to make it sound truthful.

If public writers are to embrace a plain style in an honest way, they must understand what makes it work. Kenner argues:

  • That the plain style is a style, even though it reads as plain, undecorated.
  • That it is rarely mastered and expressed as literature, except by the likes of Jonathan Swift, H.L. Mencken and Orwell.
  • That it is a contrivance, an artifice, something made up to create a particular effect.
  • That it exists in ambiguity, being the perfect form of transmission for democratic practices, but also for fictions, fabrications and hoaxes.
  • That it makes the writer sound truthful, even when he or she is not.

If you aspire to write in an honest plain style, what are its central components? Let’s give Kenner the floor:

Plain style is a populist style. … Homely diction (common language) is its hallmark, also one-two-three syntax (subject, verb, object), the show of candor and the artifice of seeming to be grounded outside language in what is called fact — the domain where a condemned man can be observed as he silently avoids a puddle and your prose will report the observation and no one will doubt it.

Kenner alludes here to Orwell’s essay in which he observes a hanging and watched the oddity of the condemned man not wanting to get his feet wet as he prepares to climb the steps to the gallows. “Such prose simulates the words anyone who was there and awake might later have spoken spontaneously. On a written page, as we’ve seen, the spontaneous can only be a contrivance.”

He adds:

The plain style feigns a candid observer. Such is its great advantage for persuading. From behind its mask of calm candor, the writer with political intentions can appeal, in seeming disinterest, to people whose pride is their no-nonsense connoisseurship of fact. And such is the trickiness of language that he may find he must deceive them to enlighten them. Whether Orwell ever witnessed a hanging or not, we’re in no doubt what he means us to think of the custom.

Orwell has been a literary hero of mine from the time I read “Animal Farm” as a child. I jumped from his overt fiction, such as “1984,” to his essays on politics and language, paying only occasional attention to his nonfiction books and narrative essays. I always assumed that Orwell shot an elephant and that he witnessed a hanging, because, well, I wanted to believe it, and assumed a social contract between writer and reader, that if a writer of nonfiction writes a scene where two brothers are arguing in a restaurant, then it was not two sisters laughing in a discotheque.

As to whether Orwell wrote from experience in these cases, I can’t be sure, but he always admitted that he wrote from a political motive, through which he might justify what is sometimes called poetic license.

Writing to reach a “higher truth,” of course, is part of a literary and religious tradition that goes back centuries. When Christian authors of an earlier age wrote the life and death stories of the saints — hagiography — they cared less about the literal truth of the story than a kind of allegorical truth: That the martyrdom of St. Agnes of Rome was an echo of the suffering of Jesus on the cross, and, therefore, a pathway to eternal life.

I write this as a lifelong Catholic without disrespect or irony. Such writing was a form of propaganda and is where we get the word: a propagation of the faith.

Orwell’s faith was in democratic institutions, threatened in the 20th century by tyrannies of the right and the left — fascism and communism. Seeing British imperialism as a corruption, he felt a moral obligation to tell stories in which that system looked bad, including one where, as a member of the imperial police in Burma, he found himself having to kill an elephant, an act he came to regret. Using the plain style, Orwell makes his essay so real that I believe it. In my professional life, I have argued against this idea of the “higher truth,” which does not respect fact, knowing how slippery that fact can be. But Orwell knew whether he shot that elephant or not, so there is no equivocating.

By the onset of the digital age, a writer’s fabrications — even those made with good intent — are often easily exposed, leading to a loss of authority and credibility that can injure a worthy cause. With Holocaust deniers abounding, why would you fabricate a story about the Holocaust when there are still so many factual stories to tell?

There is a powerful lesson here for all public writers: That if I can imagine a powerful plot and compelling characters, I do not have to fabricate a story and sell it as nonfiction. I can write it as a novel and sell it as a screenplay! I have yet to hear an argument that “Sophie’s Choice” is unworthy because it was imagined rather than reported.

I am saying that all forms of writing and communication fall potentially under the rubric of public writing. That includes, fiction, poetry, film, even the music lyrics, labeled as such: “Tell it like it is,” says the song, “Don’t be afraid. Let your conscience be your guide.”

In the end, we need reports we can trust, and even in the age of disinformation and fake news, those are best delivered in the plain style — with honesty as its backbone. Writing in the plain style is a strategy; civic clarity and credibility are the effects.

Here are the lessons:

  • When you are writing reports, when you want your audience to comprehend, write in the plain style — a kind of middle ground between an ornate high style and a low style that gravitates toward slang
  • The plain style requires exacting work. Plain does not mean simple. Prefer the straightforward over the technical: shorter words, sentences, paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity.
  • Keep subjects and verbs in the main clause together. Put the main clause first.
  • More common words work better.
  • Easy on the literary effects; use only the most transparent metaphors, nothing that stops the reader and calls attention to itself.
  • Remember 1-2-3 syntax, subject/verb/object: “Public writers prefer the plain style.”
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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
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