Jacques Barzun's Writing Tips

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Puritanboard Clerk
I just finished Simple and Direct (2001) and here are a number of tips and guidelines he gave for good writing.

1. Prefer the concrete noun to the abstract (24).

2. Avoid jargon, particularly words that have the “shun” sound at the end (25).

3. Get rid of Fancy Wordings (35).

4. Direction: The ways words point when linked with other words (40).

5. Avoid Euphemisms, slang, and local color: (41-50). Sometimes this is warranted, but rarely.

LINKING (Closeness governs the effect, whether intended or not, 77)

6. You may split an infinitive to avoid splitting a verb and its objects (59).

7. Verbs that take no preposition are frequently given a needless one by the hidden influence of some synonym (62).

8. Respect the integrity of set phrases, partitives, cliches, and complex modifiers (70).

9. Mischief awaits when we write with in a figurative manner (75).

10. Ideas connected in reality require words similarly linked, by nearness or by suitable
linking words (81). Linking terms should be short and common: as of = as; go with the latter.

11. For a plain style, avoid everything roundabout

12. Pronouns: make the reference to the antecedent clear (93). Barzun has a challenging suggestion here: “There can be no logical link between a proper name in the possessive case and a personal pronoun.” For example, “Wellington’s victory at Waterloo made him the greatest name in Europe.” The problem is that there is no person named for “him.” “Wellington’s” is not a name but an adjective. It corresponds with “victory.”

13. With yet and since the perfect tense is compulsory (verb with have; 99). The perfect tense allows distinctions to be marked in the relations with times indicated in the past.

14. “The best tone is the tone called plain, unaffected, and unadorned” (111). Beware of the “pseudo-technical tone:”
excess of nouns ending in tion (shun the “shun” sound!)
the use of verbs ending in ize (suggests a process)
the clustering of words without links

15. Beware of “adverbial dressing gowns (124). seriously consider; utterly reject; thoroughly examine

16. Be strict with modifiers (129ff). If one adjective already describes something, you don’t need another modifier also suggesting similar themes (for instance, if you write about a falling stream, you don’t need to include mountains in the landscape. It is already implied). Adverbs and adjectives usually precede the nouns, but sometimes the post-positions works better.

17. Rhythm: Let your ear intuitively guide you (136). Barzun then adumbrates the pros and cons of the historical present, stream-of-consciousness, etc., but doesn’t really come to any conclusions. Avoid “copula” type verbs (has, are, is, had).

18. The mark of a plain tone is combined lucidity and force (140).

MEANING: What do I want to say?

19. Don’t use “personal” to modify some vague idea of emphasis (156).

20. When matching, do not start with an indicative and end with a participial -ing. (163).

21. Make fewer words do more work by proper balance, matching parts, and tight construction (165). Do not join two live metaphors that raise conflicting images. This is particularly evident in using abstract metaphors.

22. Worship no images and question the validity of all (173). Put words in order of increasing strength.


23. The beginning and end of a sentence are the emphatic places (191). Storylike effects can be created by how one places details. Periodic styles create suspense. Only use it on interesting matter.

24. Even if a sentence is long, if there is a continuous presence of subject and activity, it makes for smooth reading (194). Connect verbs by the one subject.

25. The writing of a sentence is finished only when the order of words cannot be changed without damage to its thought or visibility (199).

26. Transitional words are like signposts, which the reader relies on to stay on the road. To keep the usage down, the sentence itself can often do the work (205). Try to couch your thought in such terms that it will prepare the reader for the next sequence. The fewer the transition, the stronger.

27. Opening sentences: Frame a declarative sentence that goes straight at the heart of things, awakens a quiet curiosity, and in its quiet, assured finality establishes the competence of the demonstrator (208).

28. Outlining and notes: your outline and notes should spur you forward, not drag you behind. Write from memory as much as possible (214). You must “want to tell” something.

29. Verify the sequence of ideas and take out or transpose everything that interrupts the march of thought (218).

30. The logic system demands a comma before the relative pronoun of every non-defining clause (236). The difference between essential and non-essential clauses. “That” introduces the usual non-defining clauses.

31. The colon is a sort of “equals” sign. It gives the feel of a sort of “confrontation” (238).

32. On Dashes: Dashes act like parentheses. Do not use more than one pair of dashes in a sentence. Using a dash can suggest impatience, afterthought or summation.
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