Classic prose: a window onto the world

We can think of writing as a conversation between the writer and the reader. Conversations come in different styles. Some are didactic: one person knows more than the other person, and is telling that person how it is. Some are collaborative: both parties are trying to build something together. Some are funny, some are serious. Some are aimed at an answer, some are just for fun.

Cognitive scientist and prolific writer Steven Pinker describes the conversational metaphor that underlies what he calls “classic prose”. In this style of writing, the writer is helping the reader to see some part of the world. “The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself.” The writer is disinterestedly presenting the truth. — simply showing how the world is. The writer already knows how the world is — and “he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks.”

“In classic style the writer has worked hard to find something worth showing and the perfect vantage point from which to see it. The reader may have to work hard to discern it, but her efforts will be rewarded.”

“Nor does the writer of classic prose have to argue for the truth; he just needs to present it. That is because the reader is competent and can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view.”

“The writer and the reader are equals, and the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.”

Quotes from Pinker’s book The Sense of Style. Pinker credits the articulation of classic prose to literary scholars Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner, in their book Clear and Simple as the Truth.


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