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You’re going to imitate, so imitate the best | COMMENTARY

Becoming a writer starts with reading: identifying writers whose work appeals, recognizing and assimilating their structures and techniques, and ultimately adapting them into a style that is one’s own.

That, says Ward Farnsworth in Farnsworth’s Classical English Style (David R. Godine, 260 pages, $27.95), is precisely how Abraham Lincoln did it. Having had only a few months of formal schooling, he studied the works available to him, the King James Bible and plays of Shakespeare, internalized their techniques, applied them, and developed a style that was not a pastiche of seventeenth-century prose but unmistakably, distinctively his own.

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Mr. Farnsworth would have us do the same thing.

His book collects a wealth of examples from the past two centuries to illustrate basic prose techniques. His explanations are a model of concision and clarity, but he really wants us to see how the other writers do it.

Here’s an example of explanation. We write sentences that are right-branching, with the point stated up front and detail accumulating afterward, or left-branching (sometimes called periodic), accumulating detail with the point presented at the end. He describes the value of each type: “A right-branching sentence is less work. Little has to be remembered. A left-branching sentence takes more effort to follow. It asks the reader to keep in mind what is being said while awaiting the point. In return, though, left-branching sentences can create a climax. The words at the beginning store up energy that is released at the end. They also involve the reader more fully by requiring an investment in the progress of the sentence.”

He is clear on the strengths of the Saxon style, the Germanic heritage in English of short, emphatic words, and on the strength of the Latinate style of abstraction—and the way the two can be combined. Winston Churchill is famous for having said, “Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all.” But here is Mr. Farnsworth’s description of how Churchill actually wrote.

First, a Churchill text: “You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by land, sea, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.” Now Mr. Farnsworth’s commentary: “What we will do is stated in the simplest conceivable language: 24 words in a row of one syllable apiece, every one of them at least partly Germanic. What we are fighting against is stated in the opposite way: of the last 13 words of the main sentence, more than half are Latinate, and they create a sense of height and climax. The longer words also allow him to end with a flourish for the ear.”

It should not surprise you that the author of Farnsworth’s Classic English Rhetoric offers advice on incorporating rhetorical figures into your prose. And it should fascinate you to read his two chapters on cadence, what can be done with stressed and unstressed syllables.

What he is after in this book, and what he would like you to be after, is eloquence. He finds it scarce. He thinks that our current emphasis the Attic or plain style in prose, combined with our taste for shorter, efficient sentences and the increased informality of public discourse over the past century, leaves little space for eloquent writing. We have, he says, abandoned half the orchestra.

I suggest you look into this book. (It is, like all David R. Godine books, an example of beautiful design and typography.) It is a storehouse of effective writing, showing the techniques you may freely adapt to make music of your own.

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