After 40 years as a professor of English at Cambridge University, F.L. Lucas (1894-1967) concluded that teaching people how to write well is impossible. "To write really well is a gift inborn; those who have it teach themselves." Still, he said, "one can sometimes teach them to write rather better."
In his book Style (Cassell, 1955), Lucas offered the following basic principles to "shorten that painful process" of learning how to write better.
It is bad manners to waste [the reader's] time. Therefore brevity first, then, clarity.
It is bad manners to give [readers] needless trouble. Therefore clarity. . . . And how is clarity to be achieved? Mainly by taking trouble and by writing to serve people rather than to impress them.
The social purpose of language is communication--to inform, misinform, or otherwise influence our fellows. . . . 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. . . . In some modern literature there has appeared a tendency to replace communication by a private maundering to oneself which shall inspire one's audience to maunder privately to themselves--rather as if the author handed round a box of drugged cigarettes.
Just as the art of war largely consists of deploying the strongest forces at the most important points, so the art of writing depends a good deal on putting the strongest words in the most important places. . . . One of the most important things, to my mind, in English style is word-order. 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. It has, in fact, the last word.
As the police put it, anything you say may be used as evidence against you. If handwriting reveals character, writing reveals it still more. You cannot fool all your judges all the time. . . . Most style is not honest enough. Easy to say, but hard to practice. 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. Or a writer may cultivate the obscure, to seem profound. But even carefully muddied puddles are soon fathomed. Or he may cultivate eccentricity, to seem original. But really original people do not have to think about being original--they can no more help it than they can help breathing. They do not need to dye their hair green.
- Passion and Control
This, indeed, is 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.
One learns to write by reading good books, as one learns to talk by hearing good talkers.
Every author's fairy godmother should provide him not only with a pen but also with a blue pencil.
- Sophistication and Simplicity
My point is merely that the sophisticated (ready though they may be to suppose so) do not necessarily express themselves better than the simple--in fact, may often have much to learn from them.
- Sound and Rhythm
Apart from a few simple principles, the sound and rhythm of English prose seem to me matters where both writers and readers should trust not so much to rules as to their ears.
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."