Category Archives: examples of good writing

“This pamphlet is published to prove what nobody will deny.”

 

 

See my post about Samuel Johnson

 

“This pamphlet is published to prove what nobody will deny.”

 

at

 
“This pamphlet is published to prove what nobody will deny.”

descriptive passages; active versus passive

 

 

“Use the active voice.”

 

— William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, Third Edition

 

 

I came across the following clause in Chapter XI of The Sun Also Rises, which I am currently reading: “There were cattle grazing back in the trees.”

As opposed to “Cattle were grazing back in the trees.”

I thought about Strunk and White’s dictum to use the active voice where there is a choice between active and passive. Ernest Hemingway was known for direct, vigorous writing. Why did he choose to use a passive construction? With a writer like Hemingway, you know it was a deliberate, conscious choice.

What I would say in regard to questions (choices) like this, is that it is often a matter of ear. Sometimes the passive voice is desirable, preferable. Hemingway was conveying the idea that cattle grazing on the side of a mountain was something perceived passively, so to speak, by the narrator. The cattle were there.

 

 

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Let’s look at the entire passage (from The Sun Also Rises).

The bus climbed steadily up the road. The country was barren and rocks stuck up through the clay. There was no grass beside the road. Looking back we could see the country spread out below. Far back the fields were squares of green and brown on the hillsides. Making the horizon were the brown mountains. They were strangely shaped. As we climbed higher the horizon kept changing. As the bus ground slowly up the road we could see other mountains coming up in the south. Then the road came over the crest, flattened out, and went into a forest. It was a forest of cork oaks, and the sun came through the trees in patches, and there were cattle grazing in back in the trees. We went through the forest and the road came out and turned along a rise of land, and out ahead of us was a rolling green plain, with dark mountains beyond it. These were not like the brown, heat-baked mountains we had left behind. These were wooded and there were clouds coming down from them. The green plain stretched off. It was cut by the fences and the white of the road showed through the trunks of a double line of trees that crossed the plain toward the north. As we came to the edge of the rise we saw the red roofs and while houses of Burguete ahead strung out on the plain. and away off on the shoulder of the first dark mountain was the gray metal-sheathed roof of the monastery of Roncesvalles.

This is a beautiful passage and an excellent example of descriptive prose (in a novel). Sometimes less is more, as readers of Hemingway well know. I was reminded of the visual and other arts (e.g., music) of Hemingway’s time. And, for example, of the woodcut prints of Utagawa Hiroshige.

 
Compare the following paragraphs from Book Two, Chapter V of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy:

It was thus that, strolling west along River Street on which were a number of other kinds of factories, and then north through a few other streets that held more factories–tinware, wickwire, a big vacuum carpet cleaning plant, a rug manufacturing company, and the like–that he came finally upon a miserable slum, the like of which, small as it was, he had not seen outside of Chicago or Kansas City. He was so irritated and depressed by the poverty and social angularity and crudeness of it–all spelling but one thing, social misery, to him–that he at once retraced his steps and recrossing the Mohawk by a bridge farther west soon found himself in an area which was very different indeed–a region once more of just such homes as he had been admiring before he left for the factory. And walking still farther south, he came upon that same wide and tree-lined avenue–which he had seen before–the exterior appearance of which alone identified it as the principal residence thoroughfare of Lycurgus. It was so very broad and well-paved and lined by such an arresting company of houses. At once he was very much alive to the personnel of this street, for it came to him immediately that it must be in this street very likely that his uncle Samuel lived. The houses were nearly all of French, Italian or English design, and excellent period copies at that, although he did not know it.

Impressed by their beauty and spaciousness, however, he walked along, now looking at one and another, and wondering which, if any, of these was occupied by his uncle, and deeply impressed by the significance of so much wealth. How superior and condescening his cousin Gilbert must feel, walking out of some such place as this in the morning.

Then pausing before one which, because of trees, walks, newly-groomed if bloomless flower beds, a large garage at the rear, a large fountain to the left of the house as he faced it, in the center of which was a boy holding a swan in his arms, and to the right of the house one lone cast iron stag pursued by some cast iron dogs, he felt especially impelled to admire, and charmed by the dignity of this place, which was a modified form of old English, he now inquired of a stranger who was passing–a middle-aged man of a rather shabby working type, “Whose house is that, mister?” and the man replied: “Why, that’s Samuel Griffiths’ residence. He’s the man who owns the big collar factory over the river.”

At once Clyde straightened up, as though dashed with cold water. His uncle’s! His residence! Then that was one of his automobiles standing before the garage at the rear there. And there was another visible through the open door of the garage.

 

Dreiser is not painting word-pictures, It’s all basically exposition. The ‘descriptive” details serve one purpose, and one purpose only.

River Street was in the poor part of town with factories and slums. Clyde’s uncle’s residence was in the rich section. He was “charmed by the dignity of this place [his uncle’s], which was a modified form of old English.” This tells us really nothing about what the place looked like. He made an inquiry of “a stranger who was passing–a middle-aged man of a rather shabby working type.” This could describe any number of working class men; it tells us nothingabout what the man looked like.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2020

with thanks to my brother Pete Smith for encouraging me to read some more Hemingway; and for pointing out stylistic differences between Hemingway and Dreiser

 

 

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Addendum:

 

To be fair, it should be noted that Strunk and White also say that the active versus passive rule “does not … mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” But the examples they give of sentences where the passive is desirable are of academic-type writing, not of narration and pithy sentences such as one would see in fiction. They state:

The habitual use of the active voice … makes for forcible writing. This is true … in narrative concerned principally with action. …

They give as an example “Dead leaves covered the ground.” and state that “[W]hen a sentence is made stronger [through use of the active voice], it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.”

 
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Addendum:

 

In a recent post of mine

 

“a red cord thing”

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2020/02/21/a-red-cord-thing/

 

I wrote:

English is a marvelously fertile and flexible language, rich in nuance. New ways of saying things in non-formal speech are always being come up with.

 

The concluding clause was remarked upon by a reader of the post, who found it to be awkward. In response to a comment, in an exchange we had, I wrote:

I could have written something like “People are constantly coming up with new ways of saying things,” but I wanted to avoid there being a subject-actor, so the passive construction works. “New ways of saying things” is the subject of the sentence and is at the beginning, emphasizing this (new says of saying things), and “being come up with” is at the end (passive construction).

 

 

 

hiroshige_travellers_on_a_mountain_path_along_the_coast

a Hiroshige print

The mind yearns for completion.

 
A reader of one of my posts wrote to me that the essays of Johnson, Addison, and Steele “are well worth reading, … but their style is clearly dated.”

I wonder.

 

Reading some of Samuel Johnson’s miscellaneous writings today, I was thinking to myself (as I often do) how clearly written they are and how they provide models for good writing.

Yes, there are anachronisms in usage — certainly in spelling (as well as conventions in capitalization and hyphenation) — as well as vocabulary in Johnson’s writings, and in those of Addison and Steele, whose essays provided a model for Johnson’s.
Here is an example from one of Steele’s essays:

 

An Author, when he first appears in the World, is very apt to believe it has nothing to think of but his Performances. With a good Share of this Vanity in my Heart, I made it my Business these three Days to listen after my own Fame; and, as I have sometimes met with Circumstances which did not displease me, I have been encountered by others which gave me much Mortification. It is incredible to think how empty I have in this time observed some Part of the Species to be, what mere Blanks they are when they first come abroad in the Morning, how utterly they are at a Stand, until they are set a going by some Paragraph in a News-Paper: Such Persons are very acceptable to a young Author, for they desire no more (in anything) but to be new, to be agreeable. If I found Consolation among such, I was as much disquieted by the Incapacity of others. These are Mortals who have a certain Curiosity without Power of Reflection, and perused my Papers like Spectators rather than Readers.

But there is so little Pleasure in Enquiries that so nearly concern our selves (it being the worst Way in the World to Fame, to be too anxious about it), that upon the whole I resolv’d for the future to go on in my ordinary Way; and without too much Fear or Hope about the Business of Reputation, to be very careful of the Design of my Actions, but very negligent of the Consequences of them.

— Richard Steele, The Spectator No. 4, Monday, March 5, 1711

 

 

This seems to be a specimen of clear, straightforward, and plain good writing. Does such writing go out of fashion?

 
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In a different vein — but also, to provide a specimen from Johnson — here is a brief passage from a book review by Samuel Johnson from my reading today:

He [Arthur Murphy] mentions, with great regard, [Alexander] Pope’s ode on solitude, written when he was but twelve years old, but omits to mention the poem on silence, composed, I think, as early, with much greater elegance of diction, music of numbers, extent of observation, and force of thought. [italics added]

— Samuel Johnson, review of Arthur Murphy, The Gray’s-Inn Journal, Literary Magazine (1756)

 

The concluding sequence of four phrases is an example of why Johnson’s writings merit study on stylistic grounds. On account — in this example — of excellence of phrasing, parallelism, and how pleasing to the ear, how euphonious, such wording is.

One phrase follows another, forming an integrated whole. A thought or concept clearly and forcefully expressed. The words strike home.

The mind yearns for completion. In Johnson, this is usually achieved.

It is very much like a cluster of notes in music, when notes follow and build on those before, when they not only fit together, cohere, but provide a sense of resolution.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 9, 2020

how to make things admirably clear

 

 

Re:

 

“A Deal That Has Two Elections, Rather Than Mideast Peace, as Its Focus; The Israeli-Palestinian peace plan unveiled by President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sounds more like a road map for their own futures than for the Middle East.”

by David E. Sanger

The New York Times. January 28, 2020

 

 

 

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My English teacher, Mr. Tighe, would be proud of a paper as well written as this. It exhibits masterful observance of the three core principles of expository writing: unity, coherence, and emphasis (meaning that the key points emerge clearly).

The details and quotes are stitched together with consummate skill. The organization and logic are impeccable, and the thrust of the piece is admirably clear.

I once wrote a reference book article on the British historian A. J. P. Taylor. It was approximately 2,600 words long. My former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr., who was always eager to read my writings (he was a writer himself), said that there was not “a single wasted word” in the article. Without comparing myself to Mr. Sanger, I would say that the same is true of his piece.

This may seem like a routine job of reporting. It was written on the spot–at the moment. It could serve as a model for students of journalism and in English classes as well.

 

Roger W. Smith

   January 2020

I am continually instructed in writing by the example as well as the writings of Samuel Johnson.

 

 

THE TELLING EXAMPLE

 

The kind partiality with which every man looks upon his own fraternity, is generally discovered in his acts of munificence. The merchant seldom founds hospitals for the soldier; nor the sailor endow colleges for the student. [italics added] Every man has had most opportunities of knowing the calamities incident to his own course of life: And who can blame him for pitying those miseries which he has most observed?

It is with the same kind of propension that I have always rejoiced to see the theatres made instrumental to the relief of literature in distress; and though I would not willingly oppose any act of charity, I cannot but confess a higher degree of pleasure, in contributing to the support of those, who have themselves contributed to the advancement of learning; and therefore take, with uncommon satisfaction, this opportunity of informing the town, that next Tuesday will be acted, at Covent Garden, The Way of the World, for the benefit of an unfortunate bookseller [James Crokatt]; a person, who, in his happier state, was little guilty of refusing his assistance to men of letters; whose purse often relieved them, and whose fertility of schemes often supplied them with opportunities of relieving themselves.

 

 

PARALLELISM

 

Many of the most voluminous and important works, which the industry of learning has lately produced, were projected by his [Crokatt’s] invention, undertaken by his persuasion, and encouraged by his liberality. The time is now come when he calls, in his turn, for assistance; and it is surely the duty of the publick to reward, by uncommon generosity, the benefits which he has conferred upon them, without the usual advantage to himself. (italics added)

— Samuel Johnson, Letter to the Daily Advertiser Concerning James Crokatt (1751), 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), pg. 221

 

This letter was written by on behalf of the London book trade entrepreneur James Crokatt, who having experienced business and financial difficulties, was in debtors’ prison.

 

 

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From immersion in the works of a writer of Johnson’s stature, I would be inclined to say that:

Anecdotes from the early chapters of Boswell’s Life of Johnson show that Johnson at a very young age was what we would today call a gifted child and that he was intellectually precocious.

It is also apparent from Johnson’s own accounts (and those of schoolmates) that his grammar school instruction was very rigorous in the area of rhetoric, including instruction in Latin. (I believe that his fluency in Latin along with his mastery of the king’s English contributed to, and in fact resulted in, his knowledge of and proficiency in rhetoric and mastery of the rules of exposition and grammar, whereby the “operating principles,” so to speak, of verbal expression were ingrained in him — at his command.) *

Ergo, Johnson wrote as well as he did because he was a born writer and also because he worked so hard at achieving mastery.
* The following quote is apropos. I can relate it to my own experience of foreign language study.

 

“Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen.” (He who is ignorant of foreign languages, knows not his own.)

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,   Maximen und Reflexionen (1833)

 

 

Roger W. Smith

    January 2020

how to write a feature (with a strong authorial voice and a point of view)

 

 

This post is about Ginia Bellafante’s feature article in The New York Times of December 20, 2019: “How a Banker Helped Save N.Y. (and Why It Will Never Happen Again)”

 

 

 

It is about Felix Rohatyn, who died about a week ago in Manhattan at the age of 91. Felix Rohatyn was an investment banker and diplomat. He played a central role in preventing the bankruptcy of New York City as chairman of the Municipal Assistance Corporation and chief negotiator between the city, its labor unions and its creditors. I recall those dire years well.

 
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The LEAD is very well constructed and leads seamlessly to the main point:

On Tuesday morning at Frank E. Campbell, the Madison Avenue funeral home, Michael R. Bloomberg (former mayor, current presidential candidate) delivered a eulogy in memory of Felix G. Rohatyn — banker, writer, urbanist, savior, mensch.

That Mr. Rohatyn had come to this country as a World War II refugee, that he had forged a singular life in public service in gratitude for what America had given him, that he listened passionately and brought discordant voices together to harmonize in the name of the city’s resurrection — this was the theme of Mr. Bloomberg’s warm appreciation.

Historians have pointed out that there is an obvious through-line, for better or worse, from Mr. Rohatyn’s New York to Bloomberg’s. As a financier who chaired the public-benefits corporation created to rescue the city from insolvency in the 1970s, Mr. Rohatyn’s dominance marked the beginnings of a power shift in New York’s governance in which the wealthiest and their political supplicants assumed more and more control.

And yet the line is hardly as straight as it seems. It bends and curves when it hits the volcano of arrogance that so often characterizes today’s moneyed class and the collective belief that if your portfolio is big enough you are entitled to manage the empire.

 

These is an OVERARCHING THEME which comes through strongly and clearly:

His vision of political life was the vision of commitment to a cause — in his case, the restoration of the city he loved to a place of economic vitality. He was appointed to the positions he held, elected to none of them.

He had hoped to become secretary of the Treasury at some point, a goal that had eluded him. His was not the agenda of someone who imagined his name would be known to every fourth grader in the year 2150. …

It is fashionable for a certain kind of New Yorker to lament the turn the city has taken over the past 20 years, to become nostalgic for the value system of a prior time. Felix Rohatyn certainly lived well. … But he rejected much of the excess of what came to distinguish New York, beginning in the 1980s — the self-serving habits and misplaced priorities.

 

The writer, Ms. Bellafante, has taken a possibly dry topic and made it compelling. The writer and her article do not get lost in a reporter’s facts: minutiae of a public finance. The writer and her AUTHORIAL VOICE are as important as the subject. Neither gets lost.

Which is at it should be.

A good writer has the ability to keep his or her eye on the ball so to speak. So that, conversely, a strong and distinctive authorial voice does not – in contradistinction to what I have said above — muddy the waters or detract from the subject. An original and thought provoking point of view is always desirable, so that the reader is enlightened as well as informed. It is a matter of covering all the bases (to use another cliché derived from baseball) while at the same time keeping the piece very focused and adhering to what my high school English teacher used to call the principle of UNITY.

The piece, as is observable in the writing of writers who have mastered the craft, say a lot in a minimum of space. The point is made DIRECTLY AND CONCISELY, very effectively without the point being “buried,” and made obliquely, or without one feeling that one is reading a précis.

I understand that this was not an obituary and was a feature article. An obituary would, of necessity, be more fact-based. The Times has outstanding obituary writers who have made this newspaper item an art form.

Ms. Bellafante excels at feature writing.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    December 2019

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