Beware the tyranny of the fashionably austere

Opinion, Writing

There’s a certain kind of interior designer who will not tolerate colour. If anything absolutely must be painted then it has to be white. Other than that, it’s all steel and glass and bare concrete. They delight in this, confident that they have made the ‘right’ choice. This choice is fashionable. It is one their peers from design school would recognise and endorse.

But there’s little creativity involved. They conformed to the received style guide, and expect their clients to live in a home without colour, because that’s what’s considered cool.

A  similar attitude applies to graphic design. Some designers always reaches for the typeface Helvetica. It’s a good choice. No one gets fired for choosing Helvetica. But once again, it’s too easy. And everyone ends up using the same font, over and over, too terrified to deviate.

There are similar hipster attitudes in writing: no adjectives, goes the mantra. No adverbs. Keep all writing pure and lean and muscular. That style of writing has many strengths, and many proponents. But it’s not the final word in how to write, because there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with adverbs and adjectives. They are useful parts of speech, and used properly, in moderation, they add colour to writing. Too many adjectives and adverbs and the colours clash, for sure. But that doesn’t mean the world has to be reduced to the verbal equivalent of steel, glass and bare concrete.

Writing, at its best, can be a riot of colour. Writing can be intense and passionate and wild. Writing can be calm and measured, yet expressive through the use of unusual words and phrases, striking images, outrageous metaphor. Writing can be playful. Writing can, above all, be embellished and improved through the judicious use of rhetorical devices.

On that note, I’ll leave the final word to Mark Forsyth, author of “The Elements of Eloquence”, that most essential and entertaining guide to the use of rhetoric in writing:

“Above all, I hope I have dispelled the bleak and imbecilic idea that the aim of writing is to express yourself clearly in plain, simple English using as few words as possible. This is a fiction, a fib, a fallacy, a fantasy and a falsehood. To write for mere utility is as foolish as to dress for mere utility.
“The figures of rhetoric are the beauties of all the poems we have ever read. Without them we would merely be us: eating, sleeping, manufacturing and dying. With them everything can be glorious. For though we have nothing to say, we can at least say it well.”


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