Econ 479

The Art of Writing, the Science of Economics

How to Write Like Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester is a bestselling British author of actual-factual books, describing earthquakes, river journeys, dictionary making, and other wondrous things. In this excerpt from the Swarthmore College–based blog Easily Distracted, historian Timothy Burke identifies some of the elements of Winchester’s style.

A lot of the essays I read are burdened by weak, sometimes autonomic or reflexive, attempts at style. This tendency shows up in word choice, in florid phrasing, in grand rhetorical gestures, and in elaborate or convoluted argumentative structures. If you look at the structure of Winchester’s Crack in the Edge of the World, you can see a very clean, reproducible approach to fusing readability with a sense of individual style. The outline ends up looking almost like a formula (though I don’t mean at all to underrate Winchester’s talent or his skill in executing the design).

I could sketch it like so:

  • Potent anecdote
  • Signposting of the larger subject
  • Personal experience which appears weakly connected to subject but gets more so as the recounting goes along
  • Backing up and talking about huge overall context of the specific subject of book
  • Very nice narrative device for illustrating overall context in comprehensibly human terms (in this case, a journey from the edge of the North American plate in Iceland to California)
  • Back to the specific subject: narrative account of the earthquake
  • Why this matters
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    Written by gregorymcnamee

    January 31, 2008 at 4:14 pm

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