There is an important and influential type of public writing that scholars have described as the “classic style.” The classic text to teach this style is titled “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, Clear and Simple as the Truth has guided readers to consider style not as an elegant accessory of effective prose but as its very heart. (The authors) present writing as an intellectual activity, not a passive application of verbal skills. In classic style, the motive is truth, the purpose is presentation, the reader and writer are intellectual equals, and the 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 would not think that a writing style called “classic” might also be versatile, but it is. For our interests, it often serves as a tool of civic clarity and public understanding. As a test case, I looked for examples of it 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 ones — to fulfill their mission and purpose.
My hometown, St. Petersburg, Florida, has over the past few decades become a city of museums. The Imagine Museum and the Chihuly Museum display an astonishing collection of glass art; the Florida Holocaust Museum is a place that moves the mind and the heart; and the Salvador Dalí Museum, well, what can I say, it’s surreal.
The new kid on the block is the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art. When it first opened, it came under fire for the depictions in Western art of Native Americans. That said, large galleries of art created by Indigenous artists stand out for their creativity and authenticity.
The first texts I ran into when I entered the museum were two “Youth Activity Guides.” I am not embarrassed to say that I learned a lot from the guide created for ages 6-plus. Hey, I am 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 is a taste:
There are two kinds of shapes. Geometric shapes are precise and uniform, like circles, squares, and triangles. Organic shapes are freeform and irregular, like rocks, leaves, and clouds.
The creators of the guide leave lots of white space for easy reading and add useful illustrations for quicker learning. Even better are creative activities, beginning 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 using geometric and organic shapes.” That would be an ambitious project for a 7-year-old, not to mention a 73-year-old.
The second guide is for ages 11-plus and introduces more challenging concepts, such as perspective:
Perspective is used to create a sense of depth in a design. There are two types of perspective:
Non-linear perspective: Position or overlapping elements in a design to create depth. Elements placed higher on a canvas appear farther away. Elements that overlap in front of others appear closer.
Linear (one-point) perspective: Parallel lines converge in a single vanishing point to give the illusion of depth.
Illustrations and diagrams are essential for learning. But let’s not ignore the way that the authors translate the technical jargon of the visual arts for a multi-generational audience.
If you were to follow me through a museum gallery, you would be amused. While others stand back to take in the visual experience of art, my nose is pretty close to the accompanying text block. My style is to glance at the image, read the text, then stand back and enter into the picture.
Take, for example, this text accompanying a painting called “Bronco Break” by American artist Thomas Blackshear II:
Oil on canvas
During the height of the cattle industry in the late 1800s, historians estimate that African Americans made up about 25 percent of working cowhands. Thousands started out as enslaved people on Texas ranches, where they developed cattle-tending skills that would later make them invaluable to the burgeoning livestock economy. After the Civil War (1861-1865) with few employment opportunities available to freed men of color, many found work as cowboys. The role did not provide an escape from racism, as Black cowboys often were given the toughest jobs, but they typically had greater autonomy than former enslaved people in other occupations.
While their contributions to Western expansion were significant, Black cowboys have long been overlooked in the larger narrative of American history and portrayals in art and pop culture. Fortunately, dialogue around diversity in the West has spotlighted more African American perspectives in recent decades. Today’s Black cowboys — and cowgirls — have continued 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 that 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 N.C. Wyeth, John James Audubon, Frederic Remington and Charles Russell.
I am so impressed by this prose and by other such “classic texts” that I find in informational and presentational works such as guides about animals, the stars, architecture, important places, and much more. In most examples, the author is not using the first person, yet the voice emerging from the text does seem helpful and conversational, imagining a reader who may have some questions.
It would be helpful here, to let scholars Thomas and Turner describe the character and effects of the so-called “classic style”:
The idiom of classic style is the voice of conversation. The writer adopts the pose of a speaker of near-perfect efficiency whose sentences are the product of the voice rather than some instrument of writing. … Classic style models itself on speech and can be read aloud properly the first time.
In speech, an expression is gone the moment it is spoken, and has only that one instant to enter the mind and attain its place in memory. Since classic writing pretends to be speech, it never requires the reader to look forward or backward; it never admits that the reader is in a situation to do so. Each phrase is presented as if it has only one chance — now — to do its job. Of course, a reader may in fact go over a passage of classic prose many times. But the classic writer never acknowledges that possibility either explicitly or by implication.
The ideal speech of classic style appears to be spontaneous and motivated by the need to inform a listener about something.
A passage in the classic style — delivered either orally or in print — has certain stylistic requirements, or, if not requirements, then benefits. Even though there is the feel of one side of a smart conversation, there is no sign of the first person or the second, which in other cases would signal a type of informality. The third person works best.
The scholars insist that writing the classic way avoids digressions, side-trips, even the transitions of print such as “as we mentioned earlier” or “looking into the future.” Instead, the style is straightforward and confident, information delivered with an authority that doesn’t seem bossy or pedantic.
- Start paying more attention to public texts (or published ones) 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 the texts in the third person that avoid “I” or “you.”
- If you think you have found a text written in the classic style, read it aloud. You should be able to read it through without difficulty.
- Even if you are presenting information in the classic style — without using “you” — imagine an audience of curious people. Think of 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 how it sounds. Is it clear on first reading? Does it feel confident and authoritative?
More about public writing:
- The freedoms and responsibilities of all public writers
- Want to be a better public writer? Celebrate the versatility of the question mark.
- Who is the best public writer in America on the pandemic?
- How to write with honesty in the plain style
- What makes a story good? Lessons for all public writers
- There’s no such thing as a former journalist