When I first started writing, my most common mistake was ornateness. Now, I believe the best writing is defined not by what you say, but what you choose not to say.
There is a crispness to Spartan writing, and the simple premise is that your reader’s time is precious. That’s not to say you can’t tell a complex story, or take the time to explain a difficult concept — your writing should be as complex as necessary, but no more.
When you’ve been sticking to that mantra for a while, it’s often shocking to return to older, more flowery forms of writing, and that’s exactly what I encountered when I decided it was high time to re-read David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning the Principals of Morals. A rewrite of an earlier work, it was published in 1751 and is entirely emblematic of the writing style from that time. Take, for instance, his introductory sentence:
DISPUTES with men, pertinaciously obstinate in their principles, are, of all others, the most irksome; except, perhaps, those with persons, entirely disingenuous, who really do not believe the opinions they defend, but engage in the controversy, from affectation, from a spirit of opposition, or from a desire of showing wit and ingenuity, superior to the rest of mankind.
Re-reading Hume has been a remarkable exercise in comparing modern and earlier writing styles. The formality of the writing is so intense, so convoluted in places, that you can be forgiven for forgetting what was at the start of a sentence by the time you get to the end of it.
Of course, this was the writing style of the time. Over the years, most writing has followed a path of simplification and deconstruction. Simplicity in prose doesn’t mean simplicity of thought, merely the refinement of language.
And as I wade through Hume, at times as slowly as someone would wade through treacle, I’m remaining continually grateful that we’ve come to see beauty in brevity.