Essaying to be

by Robert Minto

Gusto: 6 Notes on Prose Style

Have you ever read something so impetuous that by comparison your own sentences seemed to drag, to limp along? I’m not talking about good grammar or correct usage: I’m talking about gusto.

The 19th century British essayist Hazlitt wrote that “gusto in art is power or passion defining any object.” And then he pretty much immediately offered a second definition: “[Gusto is] giving [the] truth of character from the truth of feeling.” In other words your writing has gusto if it makes readers feel strongly about things by expressing them passionately.

So much for a general definition. But how do you do it? How do you write with gusto?

I’ve been wondering that for months. It’s a curiosity born of desperate hunger, because to write well is the thing I want most in this world, and I think the best writing sweeps you up, shatters your complacency, and carries you along: it has gusto.

I know only two ways to change how I write. The first is to weed out ugliness, to ban myself from tics. The second is to discover patterns worth imitating in the prose of writers I admire and to try them for myself. (The bestiary and grimoire are attempts to do that.) In what follows, I’m going to share six patterns, or techniques, or tricks (call them what you want) that I’ve gleaned from studying writers who write with gusto, and from taking note of the rare occasions when my own prose achieves it.

On looking over this list, I see that most of the items on it are ways of achieving sentence-level concision and paragraph-level vividness. It so happens that these are my watchwords for good writing in general. So perhaps gusto is just good writing? Nonetheless, thinking about good writing under the aspect of gusto produced the following new (to me) principles.

1. Build every sentence around a succinct base clause.

I got this formulation straight out a marvelous book by Virginia Tufte called Syntax As Style. As I began to study gusto, I noticed that writers who clearly possessed it abided by the rule religiously. Tufte wrote:

Prepositional glut occurs if no attempt is made to set up short independent base clauses. The worst offenders in this overloading of patterns are the long noun phrase and nested prepositional phrases, often collaborating in clumsiness and verbal deadweight.

Creating a succinct base clause—a short sentence around which a long one is built—is a technique every writer needs to know.

To show what she means, I’ll take a negative example from the same book. This is a sentence Tufte quotes to show the horror that comes of neglecting her advice:

Neglect of this rich mine of information is due in part to the difficulty one faces in attempting to establish a suitable model in this area for modern quantification techniques that have contributed immeasurably to the formulation of historical generalizations in such areas as economic history and voting patterns.

Yeesh. Can we fix it? Yes, by compacting the disastrous middle into a succinct base clause (and by cutting some of the fat and trading the passive voice for the active).

We neglect this rich mine of information because it’s hard to quantify, unlike economic history and voting patterns, about which quantification permits historical generalizations.

Here “because it’s hard to quantify” replaces all of “due in part to the difficulty one faces in attempting to establish a suitable model in this area for modern quantification techniques.”

What is a concise base clause? First, it’s a clause—the smallest unit of a sentence that expresses a whole proposition. Subject-verb, or subject-verb-object. Second, it’s concise. There is minimal space between the subject and the verb and the object.

For the purposes of gusto, the best thing about a concise base clause is how you can add to it. You can write very long but perfectly comprehensible sentences through independent clauses that freely modify the base:

She ran, ducking under clothes lines, swinging crazily around corners, hurdling fire hydrants, zig-zagging across the highway, hopscotching through the outdoor displays of fruit in front of the Asian market, clipping unwary pedestrians who didn’t get out of her way fast enough, slipping between the clouds of smokers, burning up tarmac like humanity’s answer to the cheetah.

OK, that’s just a silly example, but despite being just as long as the bad example above, it’s perfectly clear. A concise base—like “she ran”—makes possible the real potential of cascading clauses: gusto.

2. Drop relative pronouns.

By relative pronouns mostly I mean “that,” which,” and “who/whom.” Sometimes they’re necessary to express your meaning; often they’re just dispensable roadblocks, screwing up your gusto, making you sound as if you’re thinking about grammar rather than the matter at hand.

Here is a list of sentences I got from the first page when I googled “relative pronoun.” After each quotation I’ve tried to show how it could become snappier by dropping the pronoun.

This is the book that everyone is talking about.

Instead: “This is the book everyone is talking about.” A small but definite improvement.

She wrote to the person whom she had met last month.

Instead: “She wrote to the person she met last month.” Definitely better!

We didn’t bring the receipt, which was a big mistake.

This one’s fun. There are several ways you could drop the pronoun. Here are two of them: “We didn’t bring the receipt. Big mistake.” Or “We didn’t bring the receipt, a big mistake.” Either way, a limping sentence now leaps.

One more, but this time to show the risk of applying the principle too indiscriminately:

Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died. – Erma Bombeck

Now you might think, “Sorry, Erma, this has more gusto: ‘Never go to a doctor with dead office plants.'” But you’d be wrong. In your pursuit of gusto you would have fallen into the piranha infested waters of ambiguity. You would have made it sound like you shouldn’t visit a doctor while carrying dead office plants. So keep a sharp eye.

This gusto-producing technique also produces an effect of informality. They aren’t the same thing, informality and gusto. If informality is a problem, given a piece’s likely venue or whatever, perhaps there are better ways to get that gusto.

There’s nothing, grammatically speaking, wrong with relative pronouns. They can even be rhetorically useful for certain purposes. But they slow you down and often sound prissy; so if gusto is the effect you’re after, try dropping ’em.

I should also note that this whole relative pronoun extermination effort is but one skirmish in the war on bloat that constitutes an entire front of the campaign for… metaphor went off the rails there, instructively. I’m trying to say that gusto is often equal to concision, and extirpating relative pronouns is just another kind of concision.

3. For sonority, use parallelism instead of big words.

The fact is, many of us, when we feel the need for a little organ music in the midst of an essay, crank up the syllable-count. I don’t have a ready example of this gauche form of overreach, but I can create one for you. Here’s a mucked-up paragraph from a review I wrote a few years ago. It’s the sort of thing I might have written before I found better ways to seem profound!

Reinhold Niebuhr had not yet written a truly redoubtable tome. Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic was intriguing but inchoate; his political manifestoes suffered from his Protean commitments; his Gifford lectures were fustian bombast subtended by no erudition; and his collections of speeches, sermons, and essays signified fecundity and trenchancy, but not permanence.

And here’s what I actually wrote, with the parallelism highlighted.

Reinhold Niebuhr had not yet written a genuinely great book. Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic was quaint and intriguing, yet indecisive and unformed; his political manifestos were undermined by the changeability of his actual political positions; his Gifford lectures were two monstrous volumes of pseudo-scholarship; and his collections of speeches, sermons, and essays were signs of a fertile pen, collectively prepossessing, yet individually ephemeral.

You tell me: which attempt to sound profound has more gusto?

While parallelism—balancing rhythmically and syntactically similar clauses against one another—is an valuable technique, abusing it can result in the opposite of gusto. It can result in a swaying, lulling rhythm. From Aristotle onward, the golden rule of rhetoric has been repetition and variety. So use parallelism sparingly.

4. Summarize bluntly.

Nothing pops the ballooning dullness of a complicated paragraph like a sudden, reductive sentence. It also gives the impression that one is cutting through the bullshit. Here’s an example from Laurie Penny, a British journalist whose writing is often full of gusto. She’s talking about Game of Thrones:

Most fans of the show have idly wondered which warring noble house they’d want to be born into. Are you brave and upstanding like the Starks, an entitled aristocrat like the Lannisters, or a mad pirate bastard like the Greyjoys? Personally, I like to think that I’d be at home in Dorne, where knife-fighting and aggressive bisexuality are forms of greeting, but the truth is that I’d have been dead for at least two seasons by now and so would you. And not excitingly dead, either. Not beheaded-by-the-king dead, or burned-as-a-blood-sacrifice-to-the-god-of-fire-by-your-own-father dead. Statistically speaking, we’d be peasants. We probably wouldn’t even get names. We’d just be eating mud and waiting for the war to be over. You know it’s true.

The punch of the short sentences, in contrast to the long ones! Penny loves this technique. She really puts it through its paces, if you read her columns with any regularity, milking it for all its possible effects: cynicism, wryness, authenticity, anger.

In a way, I’m just emphasizing a part of the old chestnut that good writers vary the length of their sentences. But I’ve noticed that the writers to whom I would attribute gusto rely on this specific variation quite a bit: the sharp juxtaposition of long and extremely short. Try it.

5. Use emotion-provoking comparisons.

When a writer is doing their thing with gusto, sparks fly, and those sparks are comparisons. John Scalzi—whose writing is always full of gusto—can barely get through a paragraph without coughing up a mind-worm. Here, for example, is the first line of one of his most popular blog posts:

I’ve been thinking of a way to explain to straight white men how life works for them, without invoking the dreaded word “privilege,” to which they react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon.

My principle here isn’t just “use similes and metaphors.” (Do, though. They rock.) It’s “use emotion-provoking similes and metaphors.”

That narrows it down a bit, because not many comparisons provoke heartfelt sorrow, for example, all on their own. “Like a candle in the wind” needs a funeral and music to wring a single salty tear from even the most emotionally labile among us. But “they react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon” is funny, all by itself. Another emotion metaphors are good for insta-producing is disgust. The acid pen drips metaphors. Turning to the same fertile source of invidious comparison, here are some of the choicest ways in which John Scalzi chose to describe Ted Cruz during the Republican primaries this year: an “ambulatory cloacal splotch,” a “gross and despicable avulsion that yet managed to sprout opposable thumbs.” Ouch.

These things can really liven up a piece of prose. They’re a bit like backflips though. I had a friend in highschool who learned how to do a backflip off a wall. Unfortunately, he decided to show off his new skill prematurely. When he landed flat on his back, his chances with the ladies collapsed like a housing bubble. If you don’t watch out, your audacious comparison could go over just as well.

6. Repeat ideas with rising intensity.

Milton has great gusto. He repeats his blow twice, grapples with and exhausts his subject. His imagination has a double relish of its objects, an inveterate attachment to the things he describes, and to the words describing them.

That’s Hazlitt, again, from the end of his essay on gusto. I, personally, don’t experience Milton as being very full of gusto—a failure I attribute to the flaccidity of my mental muscles, which have to stay pretty tense to comprehend the long, suspended sentences of Paradise Lost. But I think Hazlitt’s point is a good one, observable in contemporary writing as well as in Milton. Often, those who write with gusto will hit a key point several times, trying out several phrases to sum it up, like a brainstorming session at Stirling Cooper.

You know who writes with gusto? Dan O’Sullivan. Here is a riveting example from his piece in Jacobin on the terrifying denouement of 2016:

Trump didn’t think he was going to win — not him, not his cracked, wincing campaign manager, not the sozzled Nazi werewolf chairing his presidential bid, not the jackal pack advising him, not the rival camp, not the media. Trump, that demented circus peanut, knew that he had lost every debate, that he had failed to appeal to the mystical moderate voters who determine elections, that he had trailed in most every poll.

This entire paragraph is the repetition of a single idea. It follows a simple pattern. The whole idea is in the first words, “Trump didn’t think he was going to win,” and the first string of entertaining clauses is an expansion of the subject — Trump — into those others who didn’t think he was going to win, while the the second sentence is an expansion of the predicate — “didn’t think he was going to win” — into the many ways he didn’t think it. We might say about this writer, with Hazlitt, that “his imagination has a double relish of its objects, an inveterate attachment to the things he describes, and to the words describing them.” Even though strong emotion clearly undergirds O’Sullivan’s piece, he can’t resist the opportunity to write with gusto by mining every bit of ore from the shaft of each paragraph.

That’s all I got folks. Use it wisely.


Melissa Beck says:

I so enjoyed reading this post, Robert. Thank you so much. I am trying to write a review of a philosophy book that is very dense and I am definitely lacking gusto in my writing. I am so bogged down in unpacking the ideas in the book that it lacks any sort of feeling. Thanks for the inspiration!

Robert Minto says:

Yes, in my experience nothing obstructs the pursuit of gusto like the problem of expressing complicated ideas. Oddly, though, I’ve often got over the explanatory hump by shifting my focus from clarity to gusto, a compositional approach roughly analogous to clearing a gap with a running start. Good luck with your review.

Your thoughts?

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