When I was a freshman in college, I read an excerpt of a book by the Spanish writer known as Azorín, which was the pen name of José Martínez Ruiz, (1873-1967). Mario Vargas Llosa has called him “one of the most elegant artisans of our language.”
It changed the way I thought about writing.
The excerpt was from a chapter called “Theory of Style” in the book “Un Pueblecito: Riofrío de Ávila” published in 1916. It’s set in the little town of Riofrío de Ávila and deals with the experiences of the parish priest, Bejarano Galavis. Chapter 4 describes Bejarano’s theory of good writing style – really Azorín’s style. Here it is, translated into English:
THE SNOW AND THE WATER
[…]Look at the whiteness of that mountain snow, so smooth, so clear; look at the transparency of the water in this mountain stream, so clean, so crystalline. Style is this; style is nothing. Style is writing in such a way that those read it think: This is nothing. They think: I can do this.
And yet they – the ones who think they can – actually can’t do such a simple thing; this thing which is nothing may be the most difficult, the most laborious, the most complicated of all.
DIRECTLY TO THE THINGS
Bejarano Galavis, in the prologue to his book, puts forth his theory of style. His declarations are categorical. “Clarity,” our author says, “is the first quality of style. We do not speak except to make ourselves understood. Style is clear if it immediately conveys the things in it to the listener without making him pause on the words.”
Let us retain this fundamental maxim: Directly to the things. Without words that slow us down, hold us back, and make the road more difficult, we arrive instantly at the things. […]
Anyone who isn’t an artist, who isn’t a great stylist, who hasn’t mastered technique, will always, fatally, tend to dress up feelings and ideas with annoying accessories and fuss. He’ll never understand that a style should not be rejected for being simple. “The quality of simplicity as a point of style isn’t a term of contempt but of art.” […]
And the author adds: “Simple style has no less delicacy or precision than the rest.” “Of all the defects of style, the most ridiculous is the one called overwrought.”
OBSCURE STYLE, OBSCURE THOUGHT
Everything must be sacrificed to clarity. “Every other circumstance or condition, like purity, balance, elevation, and delicacy, must cede to clarity.” Isn’t this enough? Well, for the purists, this: “It is better to be censured for grammar than to not be understood.”
“It is true that every affectation is reprehensible, but without fear one can affect to be clear.” The only excusable affectation is clarity. “It is not enough to make yourself understandable; it is necessary to aspire to be unable to be misunderstood.”
Yes, the supreme style is serious and clear. But how to write seriously and clearly if one does not think that way? […] Here lies the big problem. We are going to give a formula for simplicity. Simplicity, the extremely difficult simplicity, is a question of method. Do this and you will suddenly achieve great style:
Put one thing after the other. Nothing more; this is everything. Have you ever observed an orator or writer whose defect involves in putting things inside other things by means of parentheses, asides, digressions, and fleeting and incidental considerations?
Well, the opposite is to put things – ideas, sensations – one after the other. “Things should be placed,” Bejarano says, “in the order in which they are thought, and given their proper extension.”
But the problem… is in thinking well.