As an editor, when I see "in fact," I usually get rid of it.
I'm not opposed to passive voice and I'm very lenient with a lot of established rules of writing. My mission is to assist in amplifying a rhetor's authentic voice, but I can't deny that I like things to be concise.
"In fact" is usually followed by something that a rhetor wants to establish as fact, whether it is or isn't.
Everything in a rhetor's text is something they want to establish as fact in their world, whether it is or it isn't. We are already in their fact, and if we're reading their book, there's no getting out.
The second chapter of Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style is further affirmation of writing as a communicative act. He states that the aim of a successful writing style is immersive, going beyond sets of rules and communicating a rhetor's conception of the[ir] world.
While a restatement, it's a powerful message.
"The main requisite, I think on re-reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of censure, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever; since I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard, and found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time. But looseness quickly becomes slovenly. A little effort is needed to face a character or an incident which needs to be recorded. Nor can one let the pen write without guidance, for fear of becoming slack and untidy…" (Woolf, 1953)
This is a 1919 excerpt from the published diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Leonard Woolf. Despite it being edited, it retains much of Woolf's authentic voice and doesn't concern itself with a guide to style.
"I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard" could refer to her own writing or her way of life. This is a diary, now for public consumption, but it wasn't written with that in mind. The prior semicolon was also haphazard and something on the edge of dysfunctional.
I wouldn't have Woolf's words any other way but dysfunctional.
"...and found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time." Woolf does not owe resolution. It's the relatability that makes this line compelling. A primary lesson that human psychology teaches and murder mysteries affirm is that the origin of emotions, sometimes compulsions or tendencies, is often buried under layers defined as insignificant.
Woolf reminds herself the significance she found will be a part of the effort she puts in to her style. She will not become "slovenly" or "untidy."
What makes published diaries interesting, and the reason why I enjoyed fictitious diaries as a young reader, is that nothing is superfluous. It's written for the self, so everything that is written there is necessary for the self.
As we continue to add intended viewership, more things become unnecessary.
Someone like Pinker who believes in the concise and believes wholeheartedly in accessibility would probably have an interesting response to this idea, and that was one of my primary takeaways from this chapter.
I also enjoy his explanation of classic prose. He states that the classic style will take a concept and explain it as though it can be recognized as material. There are other titles for different methods of style, but this is something that, he states, effective classic style accomplishes.
He cites and close reads excerpts from physicist Brian Greene's explanations of the multiverse. Specifically, he discusses the way Greene employs the complex mathematics needed in the field, but chooses to deliver information such that it focuses on what that math shows us rather than the intricacies of the math itself.
When an adventurer chooses to make their journey into a publication, there will be details and thought processes that will not be available to the readers of that publication. Ideally, importance will be placed on the purpose of the journey, the effect that parts of the journey had on the adventurer (anticipated and otherwise), the journey itself, the end result, and what that revealed. In a publication, a lot of the outside context might be viewed as extraneous.
The object in Greene's case is the multiverse. The mathematics matter, but the aim of the publication is not to explain the mathematics.
The object in the adventurer's case is the journey. Not every piece of context is going to contribute to the purpose of the publication.
A problem that Pinker reveals with this explanation is different pieces of writing not fulfilling their needs because of a focus on how something is written over what is written.
If a writer is delivering a fact, especially an essential fact, they will likely not need to start their sentence with "in fact" unless they want to use that phrase as a catalyst to help them get to a certain point. When the sentence is written, "in fact" can usually be erased.
I recommend setting intentions for a piece of writing first. This can be done at sentence level. Those intentions, when expressed, can be amplified and adjusted as needed.
These are not rules. These are templates such that the writer can make their own rules.
Thank you to all my readers for your feedback on Purposeful Prose so far and for the wonderful suggestion that I try to employ more of the strategies that I do not explain from this text. It was an interesting experiment and I'm excited to try it again!
Readers can become members of Purposeful Prose for free and can "like," comment on posts, and engage in the forum. I am always accepting suggestions on what to research and write about. Your suggestions can make it into a future post.
I would suggest that anyone who is interested in the ideas that I'm in conversation with buy a copy of The Sense of Style. It's a transformative take on the style guide that offers excellent explanations as to why pieces of writing advice are so popular, different ways to conceptualize how we process the task of writing, and more.
As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Pinker, S. (2014). The sense of style: The thinking person's guide to writing in the 21st century. Viking.
Woolf, V. (2003). A Writer’s Diary (First ed.). Mariner Books.