pithy writing

 

 

“The universal regard, which is paid by mankind to such accounts of publick transactions as have been written by those who were engaged in them, may be, with great probability ascribed to that ardent love of truth, which nature has kindled in the breast of man, and which remains even where every other laudable passion is extinguished. We cannot but read such narratives with uncommon curiosity, because we consider the writer as indubitably possessed of the ability to give us just representations, and do not always reflect, that, very often, proportionate to the opportunities of knowing the truth, are the temptations to disguise it.

“Authors of this kind, have at least an incontestable superiority over those whose passions are the same, and whose knowledge is less. It is evident that those who write in their own defence, discover often more impartiality, and less contempt of evidence, than the advocates which faction or interest have raised in their favour.”

 

—  Samuel Johnson, review of An Account of the Conduct of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, Gentleman’s Magazine (March 1742), IN Johnson on Demand: Reviews, Prefaces, and Ghost-Writings, edited by O M Brack, Jr., and Robert DeMaria, Jr. (The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, Volume XX; Yale University Press, 2019), pp. 66-67

 
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Take this or practically any other expository piece by Samuel Johnson, and you will find pithy writing. His writing is dense — he packs so much into, says so much in, a passage or paragraph.

Johnson’s style has been criticized for being labored and “pedantic.” What he achieves in his essays and other writings, which merit study as writing (as well for their content), is not easy. Try it. Many writers — such as we see in countless op-eds and opinion pieces — while trying to make general points such as Johnson does here, never come close to what he achieves with respect to penetrating depth of insight and substance (content) and a style that avoids relying on commonplaces as well as superficiality.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   December 2019

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