Monday, February 22, 2010

Jacques Barzun on plain tone

Plain tone helps create clear writing. The great Jacques Barzun (pictured) had this* to say about plain tone:

“[T]he best tone is the tone called plain, unaffected, unadorned. It does not talk down or jazz up; it assumes the equality of all readers likely to approach the given subject; it informs or argues without apologizing for its task; it does not try to dazzle or cajole the indifferent; it takes no position of coziness or sophistication. It is the most difficult of all tones, and also the most adaptable. When you can write plain you can trust yourself in special effects. The plain tone is that of Lincoln always, that of Thoreau, Emerson, William James, Mark Twain, ‘Mr. Dooley’ [Finley Peter Dunne, 1867-1936], Fitzgerald, and Hemingway at their best.”

Re-read the second sentence in that quotation. It is a detailed definition of plain tone. Each of its five clauses describes a characteristic of plain tone.

The Takeaway: Keep that second sentence handy as a checklist for your writing. Keep testing the readability of your copy – it’s quick and easy with Microsoft Word. Keep reading samples from the writers mentioned by Mr. Barzun. These three techniques will slowly but steadily improve your plain tone.

*Jacques Barzun. Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers. Paperback. Quill, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2001. Pages 111-112.

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