James J- Kilpatrick

James P. Freeman: The style of George F. Will


“The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the

most valuable investment a writer can make with his time.”

                                          --Raymond Chandler


For those who follow closely or casually the commentator and columnist George Will, most are probably left with the impression of his erudite conservative views on the written page and his be-spectacled, bow-tied, urbane appearances on cable television. For some, however, it is Will’s unique style and sensibility that elevates him above his peers. That combination arguably makes him the most influential writer in America.

“A columnist for only a year,” noted James J. Kilpatrick in his 1984 book, The Writer’s Art, when Will wrote in 1975 “a splendid piece” on Patty Hearst. “Her arrest, he informed us, ‘provided a coda to a decade of political infantilism, the exegesis of which could be comprehended as a manifestation of bourgeois Weltanschauung.’ With that out of his system, George went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for commentary and to become a polished and literate essayist…”

That year he also described the rock band Led Zeppelin, as it descended into the nation’s capital, as “one of society’s vigorously vibrating ganglions.” His early work was cast in original, descriptively smoldering tones, a kind of literary Stradivari -- pitch perfect with rich resonance.

He began writing regularly in the early 1970s as Washington Editor for National Review, under the watchful eye of its founder, William F. Buckley Jr.; under the storm clouds of Watergate Will became an early outspoken critic of the Nixon administration. On Jan. 1, 1974 he became a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post; 40 years later the column appears in more than 450 newspapers. In 1976 he started a bi-weekly essay on the back page of Newsweek magazine which ran for over  30  years.

After 25 years, and a rich sediment of source material from which to study, in 1999, writing for the Ashbrook Center. at Ashland University, Steven Hayward noted Will’s “prose style combine three elements.” One, “there is the sheer clarity and aphoristic quality of his prose.” His “one sentence distillations of a larger body of thought can be found in reading every column.” Two, “Will is a superb narrative story-teller, a rarity among opinion journalists.” Three, he writes with a “dry understated, wit, also rare among opinion journalists whose prose seldom deviates from the monotone seriousness of the overly earnest.”

Conceivably, then, Hayward read this 1977 gem:

Unfortunately, my favorite delight (chocolate-coated vanilla ice cream flecked with nuts) bears the unutterable name “Hot Fudge Nutty Buddy,” an example of the plague of cuteness in commerce. There are some things a gentleman simply will not do, and one is announce in public a desire for a ‘Nutty buddy.’ So I usually settle for a plain vanilla cone.

That year he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary. The Commentary Writing Jury Report concluded that, “Will combines a scholarly approach to commentary with wry humor. His writing style is clear and to the point. His arguments and analysis are forceful and easy to understand…”

Fortune Magazine described his collection of columns in 1982’s The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions, as “a marvel of style, personality, character, learning and intelligence.” And Commentary Magazine noted “a stylistic signature so immediately recognizeable.”

A genome sequencing of Will’s compositions reveals certain attributes: two word alliterations; one sentence words puncture and punctuate longer sentences; and, despite the ice cream quotation above, rarely will he employ the use of the first-person pronoun “I.” A droll deprecation acts as an effective counter balances to weighty matters and may in fact enhance arguments presented in his work. It is also lyrical -- a certain poetry to the prose within the boundaries a standard 750 word column.

Recall a recent column about Cuba as it offers a simple example. “The permanent embargo was imposed in 1962 in the hope of achieving, among other things, regime change. Well.”

Last spring, Will was interviewed by radio personality Steve Richards for his program Speaking of Writers. He was asked something he rarely is asked about: his writing process and routine. Will explained, “I absolutely love to write” and described the activity as a “physical, tactile pleasure;” the feeling of thoughts becoming words. “A lot of reading and research goes into” writing 100 columns a year, he allows.

Will used to write “the old–fashioned way,” in long hand with a fountain pen. That all changed in February 1994, when, after a taping of the Sunday TV Program  The Week,  he broke his right arm. Ever since, he has written on a computer but he has not brought himself – yet – to twitter and tweeting. The focus always remains on content over transmission.

The best advice ever given to him was uttered by Mark Twain, who advised to do three things: “Write, write, write.” As for dispensing advice for writers, Will instructs: “Find models to emulate,” and it is important one “gets a sense to have a style.” It confirms what William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, said: “Writing is learned by imitation; we all need models.”

And Will’s models? “This columnist has had two, columnist Murray Kempton and novelist P.G. Wodehouse.”

For me, such an honor  belongs to two writers as well: George Will and U2’s Bono. A strange alloy, perhaps, unique and, at times, seemingly incompatible. But as Will reminds us, “style reflects sensibility.”

James P. Freeman is a Cape Cod-based writer