F.L. Lucas on Style: Principles of Effective Writing

"Have ideas that are clear, and expressions that are simple"

Style: The Art of Writing Well by F.L. Lucas (1955); reprinted by Harriman House in 2012.

A number of students and business professionals alike struggle with the concept of how to write effectively. Expressing oneself through the written word can, indeed, be a challenge. In fact, after 40 years as a professor of English at Cambridge University, Frank Laurence Lucas concluded that teaching people how to write well is impossible. "To write really well is a gift inborn; those who have it teach themselves," he said, though also added, "one can sometimes teach them to write rather better"  instead.

In his 1955 book, "Style," Lucas attempted to do just that and "shorten that painful process" of learning how to write better. Joseph Epstein wrote in "The New Criterion" that "F.L. Lucas wrote the best book  on prose composition for the not-so-simple reason that, in the modern era, he was the smartest, most cultivated man to turn his energies to the task." The following 10 principles of writing better were laid out in this same book. 

Brevity, Clarity and Communication

Lucas posits that it is rude to waste the reader's time, therefore brevity must always come before clarity. To be concise with one's words, especially in writing, should be taken as a virtue. Inversely, it is also rude to give readers needless trouble, therefore clarity should be considered next. In order to achieve this, Lucas claims one must allow his or her writing to serve the people rather than impress them, taking trouble with word choice and audience's understanding in order to more succinctly express oneself.

In terms of the social purpose of language, Lucas claims communication is at the center of the writers' pursuit in any composition — to inform, misinform or otherwise influence our peers through our use of language, style and usage. For Lucas, communication is "more difficult than we may think. We are all serving life sentences of solitary confinement within our bodies; like prisoners, we have, as it were, to tap in awkward code to our fellow men in their neighboring cells." He further claims a degradation of the written word in modern times, likening the tendency to replace communication with private maundering to oneself to drugging an audience with laced tobacco.

Emphasis, Honesty, Passion and Control

Just as the art of war largely consists of deploying the strongest forces at the most important points, so the art of writing depends largely on putting the strongest words in the most important places, making style and word order paramount to emphasizing the written word effective. For us, the most emphatic place in a clause or sentence is the end. This is the climax; and, during the momentary pause that follows, that last word continues, as it were, to reverberate in the reader’s mind. Mastering this art allows the writer to structure a flow to the conversation of writing, to move the reader with ease. 

To further garner their trust and make for better writing overall Lucas claims honesty is key. As the police put it, anything you say may be used as evidence against you. If handwriting reveals character, writing reveals it still more. In this, you cannot fool all your judges all the time. Therefore Lucas posits that "Most style is not honest enough. A writer may take to long words, as young men to beards — to impress. But long words, like long beards, are often the badge of charlatans."

Conversely, a writer may only write about the obscure, cultivating the strange to seem profound, but as he puts it "even carefully muddied puddles are soon fathomed.

Eccentricity then does not dictate originality, rather an original idea and person can no more help being so than they can help breathing. There's no need, as the saying goes, for them to dye their hair green. 

From this honesty, passion and control thereof must be applied to achieve the perfect balance of decent writing. One of the eternal paradoxes of both life and literature — that without passion little gets done; yet, without control of that passion, its effects are largely ill or null. Similarly in writing, one must abstain from unbridled rants (keeping it concise) of things that fascinate you and instead control and channel that passion into succinct, honest prose. 

Reading, Revision and the Nuances of Writing

As many other great creative writing teachers will tell you, the truly best way to become a better writer is by reading good books, as one learns to talk by hearing good talkers.

If you find yourself fascinated by a type of writing and aspire to imitate that style, do just that. By practicing in the style of your favorite authors, your own personal voice adheres closer to that style you want to achieve, often creating a hybrid between your unique style and that which you imitate.

These nuances in writing become especially important for the writer as he approaches the end of the writing process: revision. It helps to remember that the sophisticated do not necessarily express themselves better than the simple, nor can the opposite always be said to be true — essentially a balance of sophistication and simplicity makes for dynamic work. Further, apart from a few simple principles, the sound and rhythm of English prose seem to matters where both writers and readers should trust not so much to rules as to their ears. 

With these nuanced principles in mind, the writer should then consider revising any work completed (because a work is never truly completed the first time around). Revision is like every author's fairy godmother — granting the ability of the writer to go back and gussy up sloppy, unclear prose, to control some of the passion spilling onto the page and to eliminate superfluous words meant only to impress. Lucas concluded his discussion of style by quoting the 18th-century Dutch writer Madame de Charrière: "Have ideas that are clear, and expressions that are simple." Neglecting that bit of advice, Lucas said, is responsible for "more than half the bad writing in the world."