Mark Forsyth: it’s pretty bloody simple.

This blog isn’t really the place to review or puff current books, but I feel I have to put in a good word for Mark Forsyth’s Elements of Eloquence (full non-disclosure: I don’t know Mr Forsyth and have no connection with him or his books other than that I’m a fan). Here’s screenshots of his interesting take on Shakespeare from Chapter 1 – it has to be screenshots because of DRM, and apologies to those with screen readers. We join Forsyth when Shakespeare is copying Thomas North’s 1579 English translation of Plutarch’s Lives. 

“When Shakespeare wanted to…”: 

Shakespear cribs from North...

... but changes it


Forsyth’s thesis here and throughout the book is that you can learn these very simple rhetorical tricks to turn a commonplace into something simultaneously witty, profound, persuasive and artistic. The tricks are well-documented, originally by the Ancient Greeks, and have names that you can hear the school-room chalk-dust in: besides alliteration, there’s zeugma, diacope, epizeuxis, and three dozen others. The tricks were known and used by Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare, Dickens, the translator-authors of the AV Bible, John Lennon, Marx, Churchill, and every other citizen of the Republic of Letters that you’ve heard of. Forsyth is careful to make the book practical: in each case, he shows you the thought processes behind these tricks, so that you too can turn any normal sentence into one of these gems. Of course, it’s an open question whether you should use the tricks just because you can: my take is that you can think of these tricks as like adding garlic to a meal – it will always make the meal more interesting, but it won’t necessarily make it better. The tricks themselves really are easy to master; the skill is knowing when and how much to deploy them.

So how useful is this book to a modern jobbing writer? It depends what type of writer you are. If you’re an opinion columnist, a speech writer, a blogger, or a copy writer – you should memorise every page of this book. If you’re a playwright or a poet, or if you write non-fiction, you should know the tricks and occasionally use them. If you write fiction, and you use the tricks more than infrequently, people will think your style is old-fashioned. You’ll remind them of a writer like Melville or Dickens or Woolf – and why that’s regarded as a bad thing in today’s reading public escapes me.

In all cases the challenge is to take these tricks and use them in a modern way. Good luck!

But even if you decide not to use the tricks, they certainly are an insight into how most writers through history have used language. An essential part of writing is reading huge amounts of classic literature. By knowing these tricks, part of you can stand behind the shoulders of great writers and watch them think, watch them come up with the words that the other part of you is reading. This is the way writers have to approach reading; alas we know too much to enjoy a story like non-writers do. 

Finally, here’s another paragraph that I think gets to the heart of what a poet is. I have typed it out because I think it’s worth it – I hope Mr F (and his lawyers) don’t mind me stretching fair use to its limit.

English teaching [in Britain] is… obsessed with what a poet thought, as though that were of interest to anyone. Rather than being taught about how a poem is phrased, school children are asked to write essays on what William Blake thought about the Tiger, despite the fact that William Blake was a nutjob whose opinions, in a civilised society, would be of no interest to anyone apart from his parole officer. A poet is not someone who has great thoughts. That is the menial duty of the philosopher. A poet is someone who expresses their thoughts, however commonplace they may be, exquisitly. That is the one and only difference between a poet and everybody else.

In short, I believe there aren’t many writers who can’t improve their understanding of their craft by studying this book – and, for that matter, reading Forsyth’s too-rarely updated bog. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that I think he’s right.


Forsyth’s blog:

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