Friday, April 19, 2013

What is classic prose?: "Clear and Simple as the Truth” reinterpreted through construal-level theory

The book

Writing is only good or bad relative to the author's tacit stance on deep questions like whether truth is knowable, according to Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner in their contrarian book, Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose (2nd ed. 2011). While no style is in an absolute sense better than another, they propose to explain and teach the style “classic prose,” which they recommend for its perpetual reinvention as the instrument of choice for broad influence.

Although written mostly in classic style, the book itself is in ways disappointingly unclassic. Rather than creating an elegantly seamless work as the classic style encourages, the book is divided into three unequal parts: the Essay (captivating), the Museum (repetitious), and the Studio (painfully dull; for starter, describe a visual scene orally to a friend). 

My reinterpretation

Fortunately, construal-level theory affords insight into the mental states of writer and reader that can bypass the Studio's tedious exercises. From construal-level theory, I’ve adapted the distinction between writing that is self-contained, nuanced, and impartial (far-mode and “deeply formal”) and writing that is context dependent, simplified, and overt (near-mode and “deeply” informal). That distinction pertains to the author’s stance; another distinction pertains to the objective: influential writing might present the author’s independent thinking and seek to change the reader’s opinion or describe his considered belief, dependent on what others opine. Opinion is near-mode and is related to the words agents say to themselves in self-justification; belief is far-mode and is applied more often to others than to oneself.

The relevant styles for legal writing that Thomas and Turner present are those that respect the Writing Virtues, Clarity and Concision. The chart below depicts the relevant styles—plain, practical, and classic—each derived from a combination of the level at which the author construes the message (STANCE) and its aim (TARGET).

The difference between practical style and classic style is that practical style addresses belief and it aims, accordingly, to persuade; whereas the classic style addresses opinion and aims to convince. Thomas and Turner consider the in-house legal memorandum addressed to a superior prototypical practical style, and legal briefs, too, are mainly written in that style. The practical style in legal application doesn’t hesitate to be explicitly argumentative because the legal advocate can’t hide his partiality, as required by the classic style. Yet the more classical a brief can be made, the better; the classic style is the most effective for changing opinion. A brief must address the judge’s beliefs by citing authorities, but it will accomplish the most reliable results by reaching further to the judge’s personal impressions. Often, the facts section can be written in classic style.

Where the practical style and the classic style differ from the plain style is their self-contained deep formality. This detachment and distance is key to writing intending to be influential—whether convincing or merely persuasive—and the progressively duller second and third parts of the book attempt to teach it by having the reader master and extend the “classic visual scene,” which consists of equal conversationalists viewing the same surroundings with reciprocal knowledge of their common perceptions. The presentation of this scene, without the unarticulated gaps that pervade near-mode communication, amounts to approaching composition in far-mode. The plain style, often purveyed as the model for contemporary writers, imitates near-mode communication and lacks the detached explicitness and nuance of far-mode communication.

My advice

If you can move your legal writing toward classic prose, you will improve it, but classic prose is difficult to produce because it adapts a far-mode stance to the representation of near-mode thought, allowing its dispassionate exploration. This is unnatural to perform because in relating our opinions we naturally assume a rich, shared context. But for influential writing, classic prose ranks highest on the Writing Virtues, as this chart depicts.

The pattern above is that as the style comes to invoke an increasingly far-mode stance the writing becomes less fluent but more cohesive and selectively omissive. Near-mode thought is capable of superior articulation into parts, but far-mode affords the superior sense of a cohesive whole and inattention to the incidental. The plain to classic dimension trades off fluency for cohesion and omission, and for influential writing addressed to serious, interested readers this advances both Writing Virtues.

My conclusion

Some commentators lay great stress on the deceptiveness of the classic style, which conveys false tacit assumptions, such as the flattering appraisal that the reader is truly interested in finding truth. Construal-level theory implies these conventions are idealizations, employed by far-mode to grasp the essential and exclude the distracting. Idealization is emblematic of far-mode cognition. Thomas and Turner contend that all styles have characteristic epistemological stands, but construal-level theory implies that that idealizations aren’t as prominent in near-mode writing styles.

[Developed further in Three senses of "conversational" writing.]

No comments:

Post a Comment