Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers

Rate this book

After a lifetime of writing and editing prose, Jacques Barzun has set down his view of the best ways to improve one's style. His discussions of diction, syntax, tone, meaning, composition, and revision guide the reader through the technique of making the written word clear and agreeable to read. Exercises, model passages both literary and casual, and hundreds of amusing examples of usage gone wrong show how to choose the right path to self-expression in forceful and distinctive words.

288 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1975

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Jacques Barzun

95 books176 followers
Jacques Martin Barzun was a French-born American historian of ideas and culture.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
92 (34%)
4 stars
87 (32%)
3 stars
54 (20%)
2 stars
27 (10%)
1 star
9 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 30 reviews
Profile Image for Neil R. Coulter.
1,055 reviews100 followers
March 24, 2021
I’ve had this book on my to-read list for a long time, because it’s frequently referenced by other books I’ve read about writing. How sad (and surprising), then, that when I finally read it, I actually disliked it. “Simple & Direct” is a great title—it’s the general theme of a lot of what I teach my students and what apply when working with my writing clients. But another apt title for this book would be “Condescending & Curmudgeonly.” Throughout the book, Jacques Barzun assumes that if you don’t write well, you are an ignorant, thoughtless person who doesn’t deserve any of his time. Other writers-on-writing are also curmudgeonly—to some extent, it’s a posture that has gone with the territory for a long time—but they’re also winsome and funny: William Zinsser is the prime example, and Bryan Garner and others also come to mind. Barzun is not amusing; he’s just pretentious.

This is not to say there’s not good writing advice in the book. Though I didn’t learn anything new from Simple & Direct, it was a good refresher on some of the basics. And some of the exercises at the end of each section are helpful. But too often the examples Barzun gives are wildly outdated. Here’s one such gem:
A choice of terms may depend on an intuitive perception of nuances and visualizing of scenes: “She tucked her arm affectionately in his.” The tucking of an arm is best done by the party in whose elbow the other’s hand is placed; “slipped her arm in his” gives the truer sense of the scene. (150)
Dude, seriously?

This is the fourth edition of Simple & Direct, published in 2001 (originally published in 1975), and it makes me sad to think that Barzun spent, apparently, decades of his life being constantly annoyed at what he regarded as unclear, imprecise writing. The catchy title and long history of this book have kept it in print twenty years after its final revision, but I believe it’s time to let this one go. It has served its purpose, but there are now many, many better books about writing. Zinsser’s On Writing Well is dated but still great; Garner’s Modern English Usage is indispensable; and Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet is unbeatable for explaining current language and style changes.
Profile Image for Jane.
Author 10 books804 followers
May 20, 2013
To be honest I couldn't finish this. I'll try again another time. For a book on simple and direct writing it struck me as remarkably convoluted and flowery, not to mention snobbish. There are better style books out there.
Profile Image for kaelan.
259 reviews302 followers
July 6, 2018
Funnily enough, I didn't find Barzun that great of a writer, although he certainly isn't a bad one. But the general thrust of his advice—write with a clear idea in mind, choose your words with care, don't overtax your reader—rings true. And it was humbling to discover that I have committed many of the literary gaffs of which he complains.
Profile Image for Kris.
1,263 reviews169 followers
December 4, 2022
The authorial tone is rather snobbish, and some of the advice is preferential, even a bit silly.

I do appreciate that the book works through writing from small to big: how individual words work together, to how phrases and sentences work together, and later how paragraphs work together. He gives examples of awkward sentences and discusses how they went awry, and he also provides longer samples of skilled writing. But it's all a bit uneven, rant-y, and disorganized.

Still, not the first writing advice book I would recommend.

If you want a book with advice about common writing errors, read The Elements of Style.
If you want a book about good writing in general, read On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.
Profile Image for James Hold.
Author 152 books40 followers
June 9, 2019
I've been revisiting some of the books that helped me get started. Simple & Direst offers a ton of useful advice, altho it's ain't necessarily the easiest book to get thru.
Profile Image for Amber.
Author 19 books141 followers
October 24, 2015
Some good take-always about things not to do, but a lot of this book felt stuffy and out-dated.
Profile Image for Christopher Rush.
607 reviews9 followers
June 15, 2017
I feel somewhat abashed giving a book by the superb Jacques Barzun only two stars, but according to the authoritative site Goodreads (or "goodreads" as it wants to be known on its own page), two stars equates to "it was okay," and since Simple and Direct was okay, two stars it gets. I'm not really sure what the ultimate function of this book is: surely it's not a textbook for classroom use, as entire hordes of young people posing as students collectively work through revising sentences with diction they've never heard (perhaps the original audience was familiar with his language, but none today); I certainly did not feel impelled to work through the exercises on paper - I was fine thinking through them while reading them. Toward the end Mr. Barzun gives us an extended survey of punctuation, but inscrutably he defines colons in contradistinction to his own usage throughout the book.

Not to harp on its deficiencies, but organization, another facet of writing upon which Mr. Barzun attempts to instruct us, is almost wholly useless in this work. True, it has distinct chapter headings covering divers aspects of writing, helpful enough, but beyond that ... utter chaos. Mr. Barzun traipses merrily from sub-point to sub-point, devoid of meaningful connection or reference-work ease of finding/accessibility/utility. Mr. Barzun gives us wonderfully trenchant tips on diction, tone, style, revision ... while you're reading through the book. Aside from a virtually meaningless index, we have no realistic way of using this book as a reference tool for attacking individual writing errors.

So read it ... once. Try to absorb as much as you can. Perhaps copy out the twenty basic rules for writing Mr. Barzun scatters throughout his pages for general guidelines of decent writing. Then ... give it to someone else. I doubt you're going to want to keep it for multiple uses.
Profile Image for Ian.
117 reviews2 followers
May 14, 2020
This book is simultaneously a radical call to arms for a “simple and direct” approach to all written language and an overwrought and pedantic style manual. It fails for me in both circumstances. I was hoping for something that taught “a rhetoric for writers” as an approach to writing itself, but instead I got a bloated Strunk & White. Every time you think he’s about to retreat to a macro level and get into something insightful, he drills back down into minutia that should be second hat to anyone mildly educated in grammar or style or etymology. Perhaps the remedial student or ESL learner would find some benefit.
Profile Image for Akhil Jain.
521 reviews30 followers
November 6, 2018
- Every man has often found himself deficient in the power of expression, big with ideas which he could not utter, and unable to impress upon his reader the image existing in his own mind. —Dr. Johnson
- I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate to the left or right, the readers will most certainly go into it. —C. S. Lewis
- here and there a touch of good grammar for picturesqueness. —Mark Twain
Profile Image for Benoit Blanchon.
Author 1 book5 followers
May 9, 2019
You need to be very good in English to get the most of this book.
In my case, there were many words that I wasn't able to understand.
Sure, I learned from this book, but not as much as I hoped.

The other problem with this book is that it doesn't give the answers to the exercises, but only hints, which doesn't allow learning by example.
Profile Image for Gail Richmond.
1,241 reviews1 follower
July 6, 2017
A writers' guide to rhetoric first published in 1975, Barzun begins with fiction and covers most of the aspects of writing well: fiction; tone; audience; purpose; meaning; editing; and revision. Although some sections are dated, there is still valuable information included.
Profile Image for Fee.
767 reviews6 followers
December 15, 2021
the content of this book is anything but simple and direct. The design didn't help; all words, no room to browse or breath. No fun.
Profile Image for Dawn.
274 reviews2 followers
September 24, 2019
Overall, the book is accessible, but challenging. The author knows of what he writes. Yes, it is a little dated; however there is an edition from 2001 which I didn't see. This book is particularly meant for any who write prose, whether fiction or non-fiction. The author presents a lengthy, meaty chapter along with some exercises for the reader to try. At the end of each chapter, he gives an example of good writing from a variety of sources. At the end is an index of words, topics, and authors.
2 reviews
June 8, 2022
Simple and Direct is a rhetoric by Jacques Barzun meant for experienced writers who need broad guidance in key principles of writing rather than a review of the fundamentals like sentence mechanics and grammar. The book is divided into six parts: diction, linking, tone and tune, meaning, composition, and revision. The aim of the book is to instill a sensitivity to words into the reader, something Barzun must have felt elementary writing courses could not or did not provide.
Simple and Direct is worth reading despite its flaws. There is much useful advice and Barzun accomplishes his aim: to re-sensitive aspiring writers to words and their shades of meaning. This is not something that most rhetoric manuals or writing guides do. What most books that cover the subject contain are prescriptive rules such as “Write short sentences,” “Don’t use the passive voice,” and “Strike out all adverbs.” But prescriptive rules exist for a reason, and without them we might not have any definite standards, but for people who have been writing prose for years, the goal of making them think critically about words is a much more worthwhile pursuit than hammering in the advice that is handed out to anyone who wants to improve.
Redeveloping a sensitivity to words is useful because its effect is much more impactful than any individual guidelines that elementary rhetorics may provide. If a writer has a firm understanding of their intention and their audience, they can choose the best words to express their thoughts, and they can accomplish their purpose. Also, they can make choices in context without following rules blindly, which means that if they develop their taste in words they can make informed stylistic decisions instead of relying on the all-too-common elementary advice.
Unfortunately, the book could have a clearer style. It goes without saying that this feature does not inspire any confidence in a rhetoric manual. Other style guides such as On Writing Well, by William Zinsser and the similarly named On Writing, by Stephen King are much more well-written and readable. Another issue is that some of the chapter titles are unclear. This problem is very noticeable in section 2: Linking. It took me a long time to figure out what section 2 is about while the titles and by extension goals of all the other chapters were clear.
The ideas in Simple and Direct are worth reading and learning. Despite its flaws, the aim of Jacques Barzun’s book is great and worthwhile, and Barzun accomplishes his goal of making his readers critical editors who can read over their writing and revise it well through being careful with words and exact in meaning.
Profile Image for Dave.
367 reviews12 followers
January 13, 2022
Chosen because I attempted read Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence; his magnus opus on western civilization. Much like From Dawn defends western civilization’s splendor and value, Simple & Direct serves bulwark against bad writing. Barzun gives his take on diction, syntax, tone, meaning, composition, and revision to guide you like a college student through making your writing clear and pleasant to read. He also examples of bad writing and has a few soap box rants about the poor state of writing in our civilization. His exercises throughout helps you learn the key ideas and the ‘Time out for good reading’ passages exemplify how to instead of how not to.
Profile Image for Emily Giuffre.
Author 4 books20 followers
November 4, 2015
This book is anything BUT simple and direct. This was a very difficult read and even though the author gave examples of jargon, misplaced or misused words, and unnecessary phrases, I don't feel like a better writer for having read it. I would have preferred to have "before and after" examples of clearly edited essays. Not entirely a bad book....just not for the layman.
Profile Image for Jocelyn.
646 reviews
November 15, 2014
This is a nice writing tutorial but not what I was looking for. Barzun takes a methodical approach, starting with words and working his way out to paragraphs and compositions. He includes writing and reading exercises, for practice. I would say it's pitched to undergraduate and graduate students.
Profile Image for untogether.
60 reviews4 followers
March 24, 2009
Simple & direct: A rhetoric for writers (A Cass Canfield book) by Jacques Barzun (1975)
Profile Image for Graham Mumm.
Author 1 book10 followers
July 13, 2013
Hard to read straight through (I suggest doing it lesson tip at a time) but overall a good guide to writing well.
Profile Image for Jacob Aitken.
1,579 reviews259 followers
March 31, 2014
Very useful tips. Shows how language "works." Some stuff you would find in any common grammar on the English language. Further, he doesn't always elaborate some of the tips.
29 reviews18 followers
June 11, 2015
Stuff you already know, phrased lean and tough. Mechanically inspiring.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 30 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.