person riding in a luxurious cab

Two types of prose from poet Robert Graves

In The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose, English poet Robert Graves and his co-author, Alan Hodge, say:

“There should be two main objects in ordinary prose writing: to convey a message, and to include in it nothing that will distract the reader’s attention or check his habitual pace of reading—he should feel that he is seated at ease in a taxi, not riding a temperamental horse through traffic.”

Type 1: ordinary prose writing

I agree with this goal of clearly conveying a message. That’s best achieved without distractions.

Graves says, “As a rule, the best English is written by people without literary pretensions, who have responsible executive jobs in which the use of official language is not compulsory; and, as a rule, the better at the jobs they are, the better they write.”

Do you agree with Graves about the best writers being people in “responsible executive jobs”? I have seen some awful writing done by folks like that. I’ve also seen some excellent work.

I do agree with Graves’ appreciation of “ordinary prose writing.” But I’m an impatient, practical person. I’m inclined to like writing that’s easy to understand and that has a practical application.

Type 2: literary writing

However, there is a competing style that Graves and Hodge describe as having the aim to “divert leisured readers by ingenious or graceful feats with language.” This kind of writing has a place. But it’s not well-suited to most business communications.

Still, even I can sometimes enjoy an ingenious use of language.


Which style to use?

The bottom line? Use the type of writing that’s best suited to your goal. If you’re reading this blog, that’ll be ordinary prose most of the time.


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