Beautiful writing

What makes writing beautiful?

It is not enough to use beautiful-sounding words or avoid crude and ungainly ones. Beautiful writing is more than empty form. Beauty implies a relationship between form and function: beautiful writing is not vain or ostentatious; and since the most noble function of writing is to convey the truth, truly beautiful writing must be true as well.

To write the truth and do it beautifully is a worthy goal. But such writing takes time, effort, and insight. What is it, apart from truth, that makes writing beautiful?

There are evident mistakes: excessive convolutions such as unnecessary adverbs, or an overly confusing structure that includes too many subjects and objects in complex relationship. There is a simplicity to beautiful writing, or rather, simplicity is one aspect of beauty, where simplicity is in proportion to the aim. Beautiful writing should be neither too simple nor too complex for the truth it conveys.

Nothing I have written so far is especially beautiful, and that is because I am not taking the time to fully grasp the truth I wish to convey, and to translate it into its most fitting written form.

I am not taking the time because I do not think it is worth the time, and that in itself reveals assumptions, faults, and errors in my own thinking and attitude. If it is worth doing, is it not worth doing well? If beautiful writing is a skill worth having, should I not take the time to investigate and practice it?

What my investigations tell me is that beautiful writing should reflect the reality, the truth, behind it.

This sentence is not especially beautiful. I can pick its faults, beginning with the word “what”. “What” is redundant. It also subverts the sentence structure, bringing the yet-unknown subject to the forefront.  It would be sufficient to write:

My investigations tell me that beautiful writing should reflect the reality, the truth, behind it.

Another fault: it is not necessary to preface the substance of the text with “my investigations tell me”. This reflexive statement is overly descriptive. It brings me twice into the text. It makes “my investigation” the subject, the matter at hand, and thereby diminishes the authority of the subsequent words:

Beautiful writing should reflect the reality, the truth, behind it.

Parsing for additional faults: “should” and “shall” denote obligation. Obligation implies that beautiful writing ought to, but might not reflect reality. Is this what I mean to say?  Would it not be stronger and more accurate to state that:

Beautiful writing reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.

Is it a fault to follow “the reality” with “the truth”? Is either term redundant, or do they together imply more than either would alone?  In this instance, offering an equivalence of reality and truth implies a realist interpretation of truth: reality is true and truth is real. Far from being redundant, the two terms encompass a whole philosophical outlook between them.

Now that we have removed all the obvious faults, we might consider if the same meaning could be conveyed differently. We have reduced the statement to its essential ingredients; is this their best arrangement?

Writing is beautiful when it reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.

This arrangement draws our attention to the inclusion of “is”, which subtly alters our focus. It is as if someone has asked “when is writing beautiful?”  Giving the impression of having answered a question can add value to a phrase under certain circumstances. It may enhance the authority of the statement, by bringing to mind the unspoken question. But as an aphorism the former is superior.

Could we go further?

Beautiful writing reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.

I would not change beautiful or writing. I would not change the reality or the truth, since the definite article implies an objective standpoint. What about reflects, or behind?

Here it is useful to consider in greater depth the truth we are trying to describe. In this case, I am trying to describe how beauty relates to the function of language. But the function of language is a controversial subject, and I approach it from a preconceived philosophical perspective. Not only am I a realist, but I hold to a correspondence theory of truth, and a teleological view of language as primarily a truth-telling enterprise. In other words, I believe that:

  1. There is an objective reality.
  2. ‘True’ means ‘corresponding to objective reality’.
  3. The purpose of language is primarily to communicate truth.

The third proposition should be considered broad enough to incorporate or at least be sympathetic to elements of Wittgensteinian “language games”.

In this context, reflects and behind appear to be appropriate metaphors for the relationship between beautiful writing and reality.

People with diverse and divergent philosophies would not agree with my statement that “Beautiful writing reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.”  Perhaps they would argue that the beauty of writing is an entirely subjective phenomenon, or a socialised construct, or that beauty itself is a construct, or God knows what else.

I do not undertake this procedure whenever I write. Clearly I have not applied this level of rigour and parsimony to the whole of today’s post. In practice it seems best to aim first for the deepest truth we wish to communicate and to dwell on that truth until we are confident in expressing it as simply, appropriately, and therefore as beautifully as we might.

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