Sunday, June 16, 2019


1. It's useful for Christian writers who have the latent talent to cultivate an eloquent prose style. If you have a worthwhile message, and you want the reader (or listener) to pay attention, eloquence is a way to make them take notice. Eloquence makes the message memorable. People are more likely to reread an eloquent writer. Indeed, there are people who read certain writers just for the style (e.g. Santayana). 

In addition, a good prose style will enrich the message. For instance, the apt use of metaphor lends greater insight to the message than an abstract style. Well-chosen metaphors make the truth concrete, making it clearer to the mind.

Although they aren't great prose stylists, infidels like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have a catchy style that sells the message. We should be able to counter that and do them one better. 

The appeal of hymns by Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and William Cowper lies not merely in the message or musical setting, but in their poetic power. Same thing with the King James Bible, the traditional Book of Common Prayer, George Herbert, and Henry Vaughan. 

I don't think it's coincidental that fine prose stylists like Ruskin and C. S. Lewis were failed poets. While they didn't have what it takes to be successful poets, they had a poet's ear for language and eye for imagery, which infuses their prose.

2. Some Christians might object that what I say clashes with 1 Cor 2:1-5. However, Paul is, himself, an eloquent writer. I think his objection is not to eloquence, as such, but in part to oratory that's ostentatious, designed to impress rather than express–and in part to sophistical rhetoric that substitutes emotive power for truth, reason, and evidence. 

3. It's a mistake for preachers to strain to be more eloquent than they actually are. The Baptist preacher Robert G. Lee is a good example of someone who is laboring for effect. His language is pretty in a tinselly sort of way. Empty showy conceit. I'm not impugning his motives, just his taste.

Another example is Christopher Frye, in The Lady's Not for Burning. Although the language is vaguely Shakespearean, Shakespeare didn't merely string together pretty words, but picturesque metaphors. 

4. Many writers use a metaphorical word, then leave it at that. But that's generally ineffective. Because the stock of metaphorical words is so familiar, merely using a metaphorical word usually fails to conjure a corresponding image in the mind of the reader or listener. In the same vein, I notice that careless writers use other words in a sentence that jar with the metaphorical word. The writer himself didn't pause to mentally picture the metaphor behind the word. 

If you wish to take advantage of a metaphor, you need to do more than use a metaphorical word. Rather, you need to expand that into a visual description which evokes a scene or image in the mind of the reader. 

5. In addition, it's good if writers don't just have stock metaphors to draw upon, but a fresh experience of the world that supplies the stock metaphors in the first place. Go to the source. A good writer is a keen observer. 

6. Euphony is another trait of good prose. A misguided cliche one runs across in style manuals is to prefer a shorter synonym to a longer synonym. But that's bad advice. A good sentence has a certain rhythm. In that case, a writer with a good ear will choose words that contribute to the overall rhythm of the sentence. He's not choosing words in isolation. It's not just a question of how many syllables a particular word has, but how many syllables the sentence has–as well as the accentual stress. 

By the same token, the next word you choose should depend on how the preceding word ends. Does it end with a vowel or consonant? Does the next word begin with a vowel or consonant? Do they combine to produce a pleasing effect? Poetic techniques like assonance and consonance should work their way into prose, albeit unobtrusively. 

It's often good to write sentences with a lilting cadence. But it depends on the subject matter. Sometimes a grating, abrasive style underscores the message. It's good to vary the style. A uniform style is monotonous. Alternate between staccato and legato. 

It would be a mistake for an author to waste his best style on everything he writes about, however, mundane or ephemeral. Best to save the best style for topics that merit a more expressive or elevated treatment. A foreground requires a background. A prosaic style for more forgettable things makes a high style more arresting by contrast. 


  1. What do you think of Doug Wilson's writing style? On the one hand, he certainly has his flourishes of Chestertonian wit, but on the other hand he sometimes seems altogether too impressed with his cleverness.

    1. He's a wordsmith, and his popularity is owing in large part to his literary style, as well as witticisms and clever illustrations. He's a gifted communicator. However, in my albeit very limited exposure to his writing, he doesn't write unforgettably beautiful passages. In that regard he lacks the literary distinction of a truly great prose stylist like Ruskin.

    2. For pastors with the literary talent and good models, it's a great advantage when preaching through the narratives of Scripture to draw a mental picture of the scene for the congregation, as if they were there when it happened.

  2. Who else is good to read and emulate that you would recommend, Steve?

    1. We may need to distinguish between fiction and nonfiction. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce write magnificent prose, although Joyce's effects are carefully crafted.

      There are writers distinguished for their elegant prose style, viz. Joseph Addison, Samuel Johnson, Cardinal Newman. However, elegant prose isn't my top criterion.

      Gibbon is a famous prose stylist, but I find his style ostentatious and monotonous.

      Johnson is famous for his of balanced sentences. However, that can mechanically symmetrical and lead to a singsong effect.

      My preference is for highly colored, picturesque prose, of which John Ruskin may be the supreme exponent.

      Among American writers, I think lots of fans read Ray Bradbury as much for the style as the plots.

    2. Richard Hooker is another example. Admittedly, most of these are Englishmen. I'm not suggesting that Americans should write in a distinctively British style.

  3. Long ago I enjoyed Calvin Miller but I don't know if he's still published.

    This is what I was trying to say about bishop barron. Lots of pretty words, lots of erudition, and all of it worthless.

    Im just curious why you regard cs lewis as a failed poet. Most untrained readers might disagree but it might be true. I dont know myself!

    1. I believe Lewis's early literary ambition was to be a poet, but he didn't have the talent for that, so he become a novelist and literary critic instead. I suspect his dislike of T. S. Eliot was due in part to the fact that Eliot succeeded where Lewis failed. In fairness, I think Lewis's estimation of Eliot may have been based on Eliot's early poetry, which was more studied and pretentious than his best poetry later in life.

    2. C.S. Lewis was memorialized in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey, more for his poetic prose than his poetry. See "The Imaginative Man" for an evaluation of Lewis' poetry. Here's the concluding paragraph:

      "Lewis’s poetry never came close to securing him the towering reputation of a titan such as Eliot, but he used his disappointments to begin anew, channeling his poetic sensibilities into prose works that enlarge the imaginations of all who read them. That he will now be honored in the same sacred space as Milton, Spenser, and-yes-even Eliot seems a fitting tribute-far greater than Lewis ever dreamed."

  4. As far as style in fiction:

    My ear isn't as attuned to good style, and I'm more low brow in my tastes, but I enjoy the style of T.H. White in The Once and Future King, Kenneth Grahame in The Wind in the Willows, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince (and Wind, Sand, and Stars but that's not fiction).

    I've long loved John Bunyan, though he's often overly didactic. He's plain-spoken, earthy, common, in an attractive and almost lyrical way. I guess he's sort of like Mark Twain in that regard. Bunyan has a good ear for dialogue. He can paint arresting images or word-pictures.

    I like Chaucer's humor. However, it sometimes crosses over into ribaldry or worse.

    I think non-Christians like Dan Simmons, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, and Cormac McCarthy have a fine modern English style. However, I generally dislike what they write about.