The Art of Elegant Simplicity


When I was 14 or so, I found a beat-up copy of Somerset Maugham’s memoir, The Summing Up (1938). Halfway through the book, Maugham recalled his early days as a beginning author, in particular his initial attraction to the ornate prose of the fin de siècle. As I recall, the young Maugham actually kept lists of bizarre, recherché words that he planned to casually drop into his writing. Ultimately, though, he turned away from the meretricious allures of decorated excess to adopt the plain, conversational style of which he was to become a master. In a subsequent chapter, he then went on to praise Dryden and Swift for their sturdy, muscular English, before finally proclaiming that if you would write perfectly, “you would write like Voltaire.”

Anyone who has read Candide knows that the French philosophe possessed an easy-going, effortlessly witty style, one that is musical and pervasively ironic without any Wildean grandstanding. Maugham emphasized that, in his own case, the qualities he came to admire most in prose were “lucidity, simplicity and euphony.”

That trinity has stuck in my mind ever since. Lacking a gift for figurative language, I early on learned to focus on making my meaning clear and my paragraphs crisp, fast-moving, and informative. I viscerally dislike abstractions, fancy theorizing, all forms of condescension and showing off, and anything that sounds pontifical or, to use Holden Caulfield’s favorite put-down, phony. Instead, I listen carefully to the rhythm and flow of my sentences, pay attention to my word choices—the thesaurus is always near at hand—and try to convey a slightly nonchalant air, as if my essays and reviews were casually tossed off in about 20 minutes.

In my most grandiose moments I occasionally kid myself that my prose mirrors the acting and sartorial style of Cary Grant—avoiding obvious flamboyance while being quietly assured, elegant, and winning. Nonetheless, I do sometimes indulge in unobtrusive wordplay or even the occasional pun, if the opportunity arises.

Somewhere I once read that the supple use of “I” was the most valuable of all writing skills. Perhaps. Certainly if you can avoid coming across as vain or gushy, the first-person singular will give your writing a bounce, lightness, and warmth hard to achieve otherwise. I’ve worked hard to master its ins and outs.

I do, however, tend to worry about my penchant for quotations and literary allusions. Nonetheless, a line of poetry or a neatly turned remark by Dr. Johnson adds an extra layer to the sometimes dangerously flat surface of modern journalism. Occasionally, though, I overdo it. We all have our tics.

Not least, whenever possible, I like to sleep on whatever I’ve written. I’ll put a piece aside, wait a day or two, print it out, and invariably notice deficiencies and opportunities for improvement that I had somehow overlooked.

Let me end with a handful of writing axioms that are always floating in the back of my mind: keep things lively and moving right along. Avoid repeating words. If any passage seems boring, it is boring: cut it or change it. Be grateful for good editors and heed their suggestions. Above all, remember that writing that isn’t fun to read doesn’t get read.

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Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post and the author, most recently, of Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. Its essays originally appeared on the home page of The American Scholar.


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