Writing Tips from Alexis deTocqueville

It’s not often you get writing advice from one of the world’s greatest political theorists. But Alexis de Tocqueville wasn’t just a great thinker, he was a great writer andbook editor. Furthermore, he was a great writer who worked hard on his writing. In his notes, he often wrote himself little reminders about how to write well for the general public. Particularly if you are an academic, but really if you are writing any sort of non-fiction designed to reach a mass audience, his advice to himself can be very useful.

My favorite bit of advice comes from a note scrawled in his terrible handwriting in the margins of a chapter of The Old Regime and the Revolution, his masterpiece about the origins of the French Revolution. Writing about a sentence he didn’t like, Tocqueville commented: “Make a strong effort to avoid as much as possible, in all these chapters, the abstract style, in order to make myself fully understood, and above all read with pleasure…. one writes in order to please, and not to attain an ideal perfection of language”.

How many academic and technical writers, as well as book editing services,  forget this point! Believe me, nothing you have to say is as important as what Tocqueville had to say. And Tocqueville knew that nothing he had to say would be read if it couldn’t be read with pleasure. A writer’s first job is to think of his reader. Thinking of yourself and how wonderful your ideas are is fine, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of pleasing the reader. Don’t get it right, get it well written. If this means hiring an editor or an editing service, do it. If this means writing another draft from scratch, do it. That’s what Tocqueville did when he didn’t like the way he had written something: “Revise this chapter later and redo it quickly as if I had never written it before”. It’s good advice, from a master. All writers and book editors would do well to take it.

– Dr. Alan, www.edit911.com

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