How To Write Better, Part II: Classic Style

element of style

Steven Pinker says writers shouldn’t make this book their Bible.

Last week, I wrote about some ways to improve your writing, including a final note to “serve the reader’s purpose clearly and concisely.” This week, after reading a bit about linguist Steven Pinker and his new book, The Sense of Style, I realized this notion can be expanded … and it will change the way you write (or at least enhance what you’re already doing).

If you’re like me, you’re no stranger to a style guide. You probably used them in college, if not professionally. Even if you haven’t, you might trust the word of somebody who would consult one for authority. But you’d be mistaken! Brain scientist Pinker says that many popular style guides are useless, or at least of questionable validity. Why? Because they tend to rely on what’s called “plain style,” a linguistic convention that was prevalent in the early 20th century as a reaction to the flowery prose of the 19th century.

The problem is that today’s style guides—whether best-selling classics like The Elements of Style or internal corporate/academic/journalist rule books—all copy the previous standards, which were generally set for a specific purpose 100 years ago or a specific current audience like college students. And to compound the problem, all the previous standards are full of misinformation, incorrectly holding as gospel what you should and shouldn’t do (like start a sentence with and, for example).

The result is mythical notions of good grammar that lead to confusion and bad writing. What’s the answer?

Two words: Classic style. What is classic style? Pinker describes at as clarity and a source of pleasure. Not words you were expecting to hear, were you? Contrast these goals with that of plain style, which is simply to convey information. In a recent interview with Gretchen McCullough, he said most journalists and essayists should strive for classic style … “for exposition, commentary, review and other writing in that genre.” Think about that: Exposition, commentary, review. What is most copywriting if not exposition? How much of blogging is commentary or review?

An eminent language scholar just told you to go classic and make your writing a source of pleasure. Why would you ignore him? If you need more justification, he also says classic style simulates a scenario where the writer has noticed something in the world that the reader has not yet noticed, and so the writer places the reader in a position to notice that thing, and the reader can see it with their own eyes. Isn’t the ultimate brand promise helping people see the world differently? Your highest duty as a marketing writer is to help your company deliver on its brand promise by creating content that allows your customers to appreciate your differences and enjoy the pleasure you give them.

Even if previously unaware, the concept of classic style should seem intuitive to professional writers who live in a content marketing world. The beauty of it is that if you’re a devout content marketing disciple, you already know and practice these principles. One, clear writing is more easily understand. Two, the more enjoyable it is, the more your audience will benefit. Having this awareness gives you the freedom to be bold (a powerful marketing weapon), because you know being clearer in your style and usage will improve your communication. Improved communication = stronger connection with your customers. Stronger connection with customers = Everybody wins.

Just as Pinker talks about different media requiring different styles (eulogy vs. text message), giving your writing the appropriate style based on context—emails vs. tweets vs. landing pages—makes all the difference. Regardless of medium, clarifying your writing gives it the proper space to breathe … and will change the way you relate to your audience for the better.


For other installments in this series, please see:


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Paul Richlovsky

About Paul Richlovsky

Paul brings a writing and teaching background to his decade-long marketing career. He advises clients on content strategy and editorial direction. He is an enthusiastic marketing automation practitioner and active member of the Cleveland Marketo User Group. He has written/edited multiple marketing guides, including those aimed at healthcare, higher education, financial services, B2C brands and manufacturing audiences. With a BA in English from the College of Wooster, he is also the author of a collection of poetry, "Under the Lunar Neon."He is particularly interested in usability, digital governance, ballroom dancing, bachata, racquet sports, and romping with his niece and nephews.

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