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Tortoise Tuesday: On Strong Coffee and Good Style

In my family, coffee is consumed hot, black, and eye-wateringly strong, or not at all, which in my view, is exactly as it should be. Well before I was old enough to appreciate the pleasures of a bitterly flavorful, palette-burning mouthful of coffee, I knew what strong coffee smelled like, and more important, looked like: in a cream-colored porcelain cup placed in the full slantwise sunbeams of a winter morning, the sides should scarcely be visible even through the top few millimeters of coffee, and the bottom, needless to say, not at all. If it was so pale when I poured it as to be even slightly honey-colored in the sunlight, the coffee was too weak, and I could be sure it would be remarked upon when I brought the cups to the table. Of course, to a fifteen year-old with a bottomless sweet tooth, the bitterness of over-strong black coffee held little appeal; but knowing how to make it was important, and the first step was being able to tell the strong coffee from the weak.

The same thing can be said about recognizing good writing. It is impossible to know how to write well if you don’t know what good writing looks like, and even when a piece of writing is not to your taste, you can usually tell, with practice, whether or not it is well put together. In some cases, this means being able to identify the purpose of the piece, but there are other cases in which a piece of writing has no clear purpose, or driving argument — and, in particular, is not meant to have one — and these can be even more important for the development of good style than pieces in which the author’s argument is the central focus. In such pieces, which lack the frantic rush to get to the main point before the audience’s wandering gaze veers elsewhere, we are at far greater liberty to see the thread of a narrative unspooled at length, complete with digressions, tangents, and a periodic returns to the central theme. Well-written pieces which diverge from the terse style with which we are all so familiar reminds us of the possibilities within our own writing, and while tastes change, good style is universal. An essay which is not to my taste on a first reading might move me to tears in three years time; and the converse might just as easily hold true. The only way to learn what suits you is to read obsessively, and widely, from things which seem like complete rubbish to essays and novels and everything in between. Then all these bits and pieces will flap around in your head like bats in a cave, and turn up at the oddest moments — even the ones you didn’t think you liked at the time. Strong, scalding, black coffee might not be to your taste this year, but good coffee is good coffee, and who knows what you might think three years hence.

— Isabella Khan, ’21