I continue today posting short excerpts from my book-in-progress. Today’s excerpt, though, will be somewhat longer, as will be necessary to analyze three passages of what I consider to be great writing. Enjoy.
Some Examples. I will have plenty of opportunity later in this book to give you some examples and exercises that you can do to immediately improve your writing. But I’d like to stay on reading for a moment just to analyze a few passages that might help you think about what really makes for good writing. To show the consistency of what makes good writing (at least good non-fiction writing) I am going to present three very different types of writing: philosophy, autobiography, and journalism, separated by more than 200 years – 1759, 1907, and 1994. And I will take examples from the early part of each piece, where the establishment of ideas and tone is so important. I think you will see that, while each example has been written for a different reason, with different goals, and in different styles, they all share elements that distinguish them as good.
Each of these passages is clear, simple, and direct, although each conveys many layers of ideas and emotions. And each taps into the empathy of the reader in order to establish a bond that helps the reader to engage in the work. In the first case, empathy is the subject of the book, and this technique melds form and substance.
A Progress of Sentiments. The first, a work of philosophy, is the opening paragraph of Adam Smith’s great work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. While Smith is best known for his groundbreaking explanation of capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, The Theory of Moral Sentiments preceded that book by almost 20 years and established the moral foundation upon which Smith believed capitalism to be built. It is a misfortune of modern thought that people forget this when discussing the invisible hand and human selfishness. But I digress. This is a book about writing, not philosophy, so here is the opening paragraph:
No matter how selfish you think man is, it’s obvious that there are some principles in his nature that give him an interest in the welfare of others, and make their happiness necessary to him, even if he gets nothing from it but the pleasure of seeing it. That’s what is involved in pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we see it or are made to think about it in a vivid way. The sorrow of others often makes us sad—that’s an obvious matter of fact that doesn’t need to be argued for by giving examples. This sentiment, like all the other basic passions of human nature, is not confined to virtuous and humane people, though they may feel it more intensely than others do. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened criminal, has something of it.
Perhaps the first striking thing to notice about this paragraph is its modernity. It was written 255 years before I am writing this paragraph, but it reads as if it were written yesterday. The reason for this, for its timelessness, is its clarity and directness. It also avoids any sort of jargon. These characteristics are present in each of the three examples I give. 
Part of this –Smith’s directness – is something I am going to stress in Chapter 7. One might even describe him as beginning “in your face.” (‘No matter what you think, I am going to tell you otherwise.’) He makes it hard to ignore him. We are in the middle of a debate from the very beginning, one in which Smith clearly has participated before and one he assumes to be familiar to us.
From a technical perspective, Smith achieves this by using an interesting trope, one that he calls upon throughout the book. He addresses us as if we were in conversation with him. (I will encourage this style in my discussion of pronouns in Chapter [ ].) This invites us into the text, into Smith’s thoughts, right into the middle of the debate. He reinforces this author-reader familiarity with his immediate acknowledgment of an attitude he believes we share (i.e., that humans are selfish), and then by employing our own emotions to his ends. When he writes “the emotion we feel,” he is cleverly hijacking our emotions and calling upon our empathic reactions. At the same time, by uniting himself with us, he steps back from the challenge with which he began. But he does so argumentatively. We’re going to have to think through this with him.
Note, for example, how he twice asserts his observations to be “obvious.” Indeed, our sympathetic identification with sorrow is so obvious that it “doesn’t need to be argued for by giving examples.” This technique puts the contrary burden of proof on the reader; if the assertions are obvious, clearly we will need some pretty good evidence if we are to challenge them. At the same time, Smith slyly challenges us to come up with examples that counter the assertion. In this case, I believe that to be impossible as –obviously – does Smith.
This paragraph is also a very nice example of how the very technique and style of writing itself can reinforce the meaning of the text (a technique which I will show below used to different effect by David Foster Wallace). Smith’s engagement of our emotions from the get-go is essential to the (very long) argument that follows. This is because Smith’s moral theory relies directly – indeed depends — upon our ability sympathetically (empathetically) to identify with the emotions of others. It is precisely this identity, and its resonance, with its echoing of, our own emotions, that allows us to at least in some small part experience the joys and pains of others. It is that experience that ties our own selfish impulses – our desire for pleasure and avoidance of pain – to the feelings and thus well-being of others. Smith manages to convey all of this in a single opening paragraph. Brilliant writing.
From Generation to Generation. My next example is taken from Henry Adams’ autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams.Adams, a Harvard history professor and author of one of the most widely-regarded histories of the United States from Jefferson through Madison, was the great-grandson and grandson of presidents, and the son of a key Civil War–era diplomat, facts which hung heavy over Adams and which give the Education its special poignancy. I first read the book my sophomore year of college, and was immediately enthralled. And this despite the fact that Adams can be whiny, contentious, arrogant, supercilious, nasty, and otherwise obnoxious. The book is so good that I still wound up liking the guy (and, indeed, devoted more than a quarter of my senior honors thesis to him).
Here’s the first paragraph. Note that, in autobiography (or, indeed, biography), this first paragraph is especially critical, because it is either where we first meet the subject or are introduced to his antecedents (the latter of which is used to brilliant effect by Robert Caro in the first volume of his monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Path to Power.)
Under the shadow of Boston State House, turning its back on the house of John Hancock, the little passage called Hancock Avenue runs, or ran, from Beacon Street, skirting the State House grounds, to Mount Vernon Street, on the summit of Beacon Hill; and there, in the third house below Mount Vernon Place, February 16, 1838, a child was born, and christened later by his uncle, the minister of the First Church after the tenets of Boston Unitarianism, as Henry Brooks Adams.
Now, what makes this special? It is every bit as modern as Smith. This, again, is a function of clarity, simplicity, and directness, despite the fact that the paragraph consists of only one sentence. And, just as Smith hijacks our emotions to his ends, so does Adams – albeit more subtly – hijack our memories.
On one level, this paragraph simply is a set of directions to a house, ending in a declarative clause about a simple fact. As directions, we would expect (though not demand) it to be a sentence of multiple clauses. But it is coy – brilliantly, cleverly, coy. Indeed it may be one of the most understated openings to any book written since Genesis. For just as Adams will tell a tale of frustration and failure (despite obvious objective success), the introduction embodies the entirety of the reason why. Of course it helps that we recognize Adams’ name, for even readers who don’t know his ancestry will call up in recollection the significance of Boston Adamses. I doubt the opening would have been effective had Henry’s famous ancestry been on his maternal line. Nonetheless, uniting Boston, John Hancock, the Adams family, Beacon Hill, and Boston Unitarianism (as well as the fact that his uncle was minister) speaks volumes about the legacy the baby was inheriting. The rest of the book unpacks this paragraph, just as Moral Sentiments does with its opening.
And that is the genius of this introduction. I haven’t much more to note about it, other than to stress its simplicity. Adams uses the technique of understatement throughout the book, evincing a modesty that belies rather a large ego. But Adams wants our sympathy. As enormously accomplished as he was, we are unlikely to rank him with his progenitors in national importance. In order for us to appreciate what young Henry did, he has to be understated. His ability to sustain that understatement throughout is a large part of what makes the writing so effective.
State Fair. Finally, let’s take a look at a paragraph from a piece that, while nominally journalism, can best be categorized as literary non-fiction. The article (which is absolutely hilarious) appeared in Harper’s in 1994 and was written by David Foster Wallace. To my mind, there is no better writer than Wallace (and I list him as one of my three most influential writers at the end of this chapter). Why will become apparent if you read any of his work. This paragraph may suffice:
The heat is too familiar. In August it takes hours for the dawn fog to burn off. The air is like wet wool. Eight A.M. is too early to justify turning on the car’s AC. The sun is a blotch in a sky that isn’t so much cloudy as opaque. The corn starts just past the breakdown lanes and goes right to the sky’s hem. August corn in Illinois is as tall as a tall man. With all the advances in fertilization, it’s now knee-high by June 1. Locusts chirr in every field, a brassy electric sound that Dopplers oddly inside the speeding car. Corn, corn, soy- beans, corn, exit ramp, corn, and every few miles an outpost way off on a reach in the distance- house, tree with tire swing, barn, satellite dish. Grain silos are the only skyline. A fog hangs just over the fields. It is over eighty degrees and climbing with the sun. It’ll be over ninety degrees by 10:00 A.M. There’s that tightening quality to the air, like it’s drawing itself in and down for a siege. The interstate is dull and pale. Occasional other cars look ghostly, their drivers’ faces humidity- stunned.
I think this simply is fantastic. You are there, and you see and feel precisely what Wallace is seeing and feeling. But there is more. You get his mood. Anxious. Edgy. Anticipating but not eagerly. How does he do it?
I’m going to analyze this paragraph with some precision. In so doing, I am not suggesting that you need to do this with your own reading (or you’d never finish anything). I do not suggest that this is the way Wallace wrote it. (I don’t know, but I very much doubt that he did. I suspect that the precision of the structure is more a matter of instinct and training than architecture.) And I do not suggest that you have to do this with your writing. The reason I am analyzing the paragraph as closely as I am is to give you some insight into what makes great writing. If you think about even a little of what you read and write this way, you are likely to become a far better writer.
Let me also acknowledge that, like the other examples I give, this is just one piece of great writing. I do not mean to suggest that Wallace’s form, technique, and style are the only ways to write well – only that they are very effective ways to write well. And I do want to get you thinking perhaps a bit more actively about why the good stuff you read is so good. That will help your writing.
Let’s start with mood, which is perhaps the most subtle of the paragraph’s qualities. Two of the principle devices that Wallace uses to establish mood here are syntax and rhythm. May I remind you that writing and speaking are the same activity? For many, if not most, of us, what we read resounds in our head. Try reading this paragraph aloud before proceeding to analysis. How does it feel? Yes, feel. Feeling is the consequence of the mood Wallace establishes. Do you feel the anxiety? Wallace, like Smith, knows precisely how to hijack your emotions.
OK, here goes. There are 17 sentences in this paragraph. Notice the sentence structure. Almost all of the sentences are short and direct. Each one describes precisely one thing. There is one exception – the 10th sentence, just past the middle of the paragraph. That sentence, almost three times the average length of each preceding sentence (and a little more than three times the average length of the sentences following), provides a panoramic vision, a more comprehensive sweep of what Wallace is seeing from the car. The remaining seven sentences – slightly shorter than the first nine, revert back to the single-image form.
So Wallace creates edge and anxiety with short, punchy, precise sentences. We see one thing at a time – imagine sitting in the car with your eyes going from sight to sight. He takes a breath midway, allowing us to relax and put it all together, although he does so only after repeated, separated, monosyllables that highlight the monotony of the view (“corn, corn, soy-beans, corn . . .”). And then, as if remembering where he is and what he is about to do, he breathes a bit more quickly and anxiously to the end. Imagine if the paragraph were music, say a classical sonata. The first nine sentences comprise the first movement, the tenth sentence the second, slow movement, and the remaining sentences the fast and furious conclusion. The comparison to music is not idle. We have a culturally-developed aesthetic sense that crosses art forms.
Look again at the directness of the description. Wallace relies heavily on simile and metaphor. Of the 199 words only 12 – just 6% — are adjectives (about which I will rail in Chapter 7). This directness helps the pace. It makes the images clear. It prevents the reader from bogging down in the description but rather presents it as clear and as still as a Grant Wood painting. (image). And it leaves you waiting for more, anxious to know what happens next.
This, my friends, is good writing. Read well, write well.
 Please remember this when you reach my discussion of weasly indirection in Chapter 7.
 Henry Adams, The Education (New York; Library of America; 1987).
 David Foster Wallace, Ticket to the Fair, Harper’s, July 1994, p. 35, republished as Getting Away From Already Being Pretty Much Away From It All, in David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Boston; Little, Brown 1997).
 The average sentence in the paragraph is 11.7 words. The first nine sentences average 11.66, and the last seven sentences average 9.14.