Writing for Business and Pleasure
Copyright by Stephen Wilbers
Columns on Elegance & Beauty in Writing
First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune on May 17, 2010
Elegance adds power to business writing
First published May 17, 2010
Elegance of the Hedgehog:
the point of grammar?
In Muriel Barbery’s novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, 12-year-old Paloma is taken aback when her literature teacher says, "The point is to make us speak and write well."
To offer this explanation to "a group of adolescents who already know how to speak and write is," in Paloma’s opinion, "like telling someone it is necessary to read a history of toilets in order to pee and poop."
Paloma doesn’t think her teacher’s explanation is wrong exactly; she thinks it "grossly inept."
"We already knew how to use and conjugate a verb long before we knew it was a verb," she reflects. To her precocious mind, grammar lessons are "a sort of synthesis after the fact . . . a source of supplemental details concerning terminology."
More than that, "Grammar is an end in itself and not simply a means. It provides access to the structure and beauty of language. It’s not just some trick to help people get by in society."
How do you feel about grammar? Is it merely a set of rules that make you look good if you follow them and embarrass you if you don’t?
For Paloma, "Grammar is a way to attain beauty. When you speak or read or write, you can tell if you’ve said or read or written a fine sentence. You can recognize a well-turned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully . . . you peel back the layers to see how it is all put together [and] you say to yourself, ‘Look how well made this is, how well constructed it is, how solid and ingenious, rich and subtle.’"
One often hears the contrary argument. Why study English when I already know how to speak? Why study writing when I already know how to write? As long as you understand me, what does it matter if I follow the rules?
There’s nothing wrong with using words pragmatically to conduct business or seal the deal, but is there a place in your everyday life for beauty? Do you, like Paloma, "get completely carried away just knowing that there are words of all different natures, and that you have to know them in order to be able to infer their potential usage and compatibility"?
If creating beauty is not your first thought when you arrive for work on Monday morning, consider what is likely to satisfy you at the end of the day. When you look back on a lifetime of work, will you be proud that you nudged the boulder a little higher up the hill, or that you did so with dignity, style, and grace?
Isn’t that what we all want in the end? Something more than tricks to get by? Something of more enduring value?
Perhaps we would do well to remember Paloma’s concluding thought on grammar: "Pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language."
First published June 30, 1995
by Stephen Wilbers
know if you’re ready for this. I figure you either will roast me or toast
me. But here goes: Elegance has its place in business writing.
Elegance can add power, refinement, dignity, even authority to a message that otherwise might go unheeded. As Joseph Williams points out in Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, if we never attempted anything but clear, straightforward sentences, "we’d be like a pianist who could use only the middle octave."
To be sure, we need to know the middle octave well. That in itself is an important achievement. But to write with elegance, to write in a style that is both "distinguished and distinguishing," we need to do more. We need to know how—and when—to punctuate our message with that occasional high or low note.
Here are three thoughts on writing with elegance:Elegance cannot be forced. It cannot be purchased and slipped into like fine clothes. Writing with elegance comes naturally and gradually. It comes from making the right assumptions about language and from observing certain principles of writing.
As E. B. White advises in The Elements of Style, writers "should begin by turning resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style—all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity."
Elegance need not be complicated. Again using White as an example, consider the elegance of this sentence: "These [questions of style] are high mysteries, and this chapter is a mystery story, thinly disguised."
Note how a simple shift in word order destroys the effect: "These are high mysteries, and this chapter is a thinly disguised mystery story." Without the grace note at the end, the sentence becomes ordinary.
Elegance depends more on the sound of language than on content. Elegance requires a precise, robust vocabulary. It also requires an ear for language and attention to the cadence, rhythm, and flow of sentence structure. A common device for creating a pleasing sound is to achieve balance and symmetry through coordination.
Compare, for example, these sentences: "Thank you for the commitment, competence, thoughtfulness, and integrity you have demonstrated over the past 20 years." "Thank you for all you have given us over the past 20 years. Your commitment is matched only by your competence, your thoughtfulness only by your integrity."
In business writing, the bottom line always will be clarity. But surely somewhere near the top of the page are elegance and grace.
More than two centuries ago, the English author and lexicographer Samuel Johnson described the most desirable English style as "familiar but not coarse, elegant but not ostentatious."
My, how times don’t change.