If you are reading this article, it most likely means that your professor has given you a task to write belles letter assignment, but you have no idea what it is and how you should approach this sort of writing. In this article, you will find all the information you need to write your own belles lettres text without doing any extra research.
The term “belles lettres” is French in origin and literally means “beautiful (or fine) letters” – beautiful not in the meaning of calligraphy, but referring to the general beauty of the prose. This category of literature doesn’t try to be useful, informative or practical. On the contrary, it is perceived as an end in itself and is valued for its aesthetic qualities. However, if you try to dig further, the definition of the term will get blurry, as it is different in different sources. For example, it is generally agreed that belles lettres encompasses all literary work that doesn’t fall into traditional major categories (drama, fiction, and poetry). Meanwhile, the Oxford Dictionary limits it to essay writing, especially if it deals with literary and artistic criticism. All in all, wouldn’t be wrong to define it as a lighter, more sophisticated kind of literature, read primarily for its aesthetic effect.
So how should a belletrist approach his/her work to achieve the desired results? Let’s take a closer look.
1. Know the Difference Between the Belles Lettres and Academic Styles
Students studying in modern educational institutions are often taught a rather narrow approach to writing, which is later reflected in the tone of their works. These days we aren’t given lectures on rhetoric techniques, which means that our writings tend to be dry, cumbersome and ridden with professional jargon. Using humor or expressing it is a big no-no. However, if you take a look at classic examples of belles lettres style, you will see that their authors manage to write on the most serious topics (state of society, world peace, culture, you name it) originally, using witty turns of phrase, making jokes.
The main characteristic of a belles lettres writer as opposed to an academician is that his/her work can be precise and clear yet polished, elegant and casual. Perhaps this will help you better understand the situation: for a long time, belles lettres has been used as a synonym for the familiar essay. In addition to that, in the past “belles lettres” was often rendered in English as “polite letters” – you can use it as a guideline. Write as if you were writing a letter to a highly educated friend – somebody who will appreciate your fine writing style but doesn’t require formality.
2. Study Essays by Recognized Belles Lettres Masters
The best way to put a finger on what the belles lettres style is all about is to carefully study essays written by people recognized as world-class masters. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Aldous Huxley, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Clive Staples Lewis are just a few names that come to mind, although there are plenty of modern authors you can read as well. Get your hands on some of their writing, analyze it and review it, create a table to label the features they have together, and you will understand what makes their writing great. After that, it will be just a matter of following the same principles in your new texts.
3. Introduce Narrative Elements into Your Essays
Many famous essayists have a habit of introducing some kind of story into their writing, even if the text, in general, isn’t narrative in nature. G.K. Chesterton is a good example of this approach – many of his essays start out as little sketches or stories giving a short summary of some contemporary or past event, big or small. On the one hand, this technique allows you to immediately attract the reader’s attention – essays are often rather abstract and have a hard time creating a clear focus, and human brains are hardwired to be attracted by storytelling. On the other hand, it allows you to create a custom and original introduction to your essay without putting much thought into it.
4. Avoid the Purple Prose
Many beginner writers fail to understand the difference between aesthetically pleasing complex writing characteristic of belles lettres and what is commonly referred to as purple prose. What is it? Purple prose is an overly ornate, cumbersome, unnecessarily verbose writing style, using multi-syllable synonyms in place of monosyllable words and so on. Compare “Purple prose signifies eschewing quotidian articulations in favor of labyrinthine intertwinement of voluminous words and clauses” to “Purple prose means using long and complicated sentences instead of everyday speech” and go from there. In a sense, most writers go through a period of using florid speech to make their writing look more dignified and serious; just make sure you go through it as fast as possible. Ironically, you may find it useful to practice writing this way – for example, try describing your native city or county for fifteen minutes using nothing but purple prose. This will make you more prone to noticing the examples of it in your writing later on.
5. Be Subjective
Throughout your stay in college, you were taught to be purely objective and avoid not just expressing your opinion but even using words and turns of phrase that can be perceived as subjective. If you say something that creates an impression of subjectivity, you are supposed to issue an apology and explain that no, in fact, it is not the case.
In a sense, writing belles lettres means throwing this principle out of the window. This genre presupposes that you have a personal subjective opinion on what you are writing about. You are expected to express a point of view, and it is normal for your view to be seen even in your choice of words. Therefore, the use of emotionally colored words, expressions with evaluative connotations and so on is allowed.
6. Use the Right Language
Before you can successfully write a belles lettres text, you have to understand what kind of language you should use and how you should do it. Its main characteristics are as follows:
- Word use and their meaning are contextual. More than one dictionary meaning is often applied, the meaning of individual words depends on their lexical environment. This very fact is often used as an additional source of expressiveness;
- Individual choice of vocabulary and syntax. This means that you should try to make your style personalized and recognizable through the use of “favorite” words, sentence structures and expressions. They may even not be entirely correct in terms of grammar and orthography – if you can make it look like a personal stylistic choice and not a mere mistake;
- Use of original imagery. Avoid clichés like the plague and try your own original metaphors, similes and other applications of stylistic devices;
- Elements of colloquial speech. Although this doesn’t mean that you are allowed to write exactly the way you speak, belles lettres writing is much less formal than other academic styles. Certain deviations from literary language are acceptable, especially if they are used selectively to pinpoint a particularly important matter.
7. Plan Ahead
When you read a belles lettres text, it often feels as if the author effortlessly surfs from one thought to the next and the writing flows naturally, as if nothing directs it. It is easy to assume that papers of this kind are written as a stream of consciousness – you simply sit down and let your thoughts pour onto the paper. However, if you try to do it, you will either fail to move further than the first sentence or write a jumbled, incoherent mess.
In reality, this perceived lightness and ease is achieved only by rigorous planning. Just like with any other kind of writing, you have to write down what you intend to start with, what points you have to mention, in what order, how you will connect them and so on. After the plan is ready, you can allow yourself a degree of freedom in the process of writing, but the core of your text will remain pre-determined.
8. Write More Than Necessary
It may sound counter-intuitive, but consider this: belle lettres is a very flexible and fluid kind of writing, with individual parts being easily replaceable and removable. It is especially important if you are given a word count to strive for. Don’t stop writing when you reach it, just go on. When you finish and reread your paper later, it often becomes obvious that certain parts don’t work well with each other, there are repetitions, some fragments are weak, some words are excessive. If you didn’t leave yourself a leeway, you will be forced to either keep all these suboptimal elements or look for something to replace them. At this stage of your work, new information and ideas may look out of place, spoiling the impression about the rest of the paper.
If, however, you write more than you have to, you can simply cut the flab and bring your essay down to the desired size without significantly restructuring it.
9. Avoid Repetitions
Remember – you are not writing an academic paper, where exact and specific terminology is necessary. You write a text that should be aesthetically pleasing and easily roll off the tongue. Endless repetitions of one and the same word or phrase don’t add much in terms of expressiveness.
The same goes for contents. Once you’ve finished writing, carefully go through the entire paper and see if you repeat the same thoughts or facts more than once. Ask yourself when reading each sentence: Does it add anything new to the discourse?
10. Stay on Topic
The very nature of belles lettres writing makes it very easy to go off on a tangent and start talking about something only barely related to the topic of your assignment. It is a good practice to double back ever so often and check if what you are talking about right now is relevant and logically connected to the subject matter. When you finish the paper, reread it carefully and eliminate everything that doesn’t move your point forward. Ideally, you should ask somebody else to read the text and pass their judgment: whether it is consistent, whether all the information is relevant and whether they had to reread any fragments because they couldn’t understand them the first time around.
Unfortunately, the belles lettres style isn’t a very popular thing to teach in college. As a result, there isn’t a lot of useful information or practical manuals with outlines and tables that would carefully explain all its specifics, online or offline. Going to your local library to study examples written by commonly acclaimed authors can only take you so far – their personal styles are usually too personal and idiosyncratic. This means that they are extremely hard to emulate, and even if you manage to pull it off, it usually becomes immediately obvious that you imitate somebody. This won’t earn you bonus points.
An alternative would be to order a sample of a belles lettres essay from an online writing service. Place an order for a paper dealing with a topic of your choice, and after a short while, we will send you the text in pdf (or another format, specified by you), written by a skilled and proficient writer well-versed in the subject matter. Our service firmly adheres to the principles of GRADE quality standard (Growth, Reliability, Authenticity, Diversity, and Excellence). This means that our samples:
- Will help you improve as a writer;
- Are always delivered on time;
- Never contain plagiarism of any kind;
- Can be written on almost any topic;
- Always follow your instructions to the letter and are of top-notch quality.
When you begin studying them, you may not even know the right pronunciation of the word “belles lettres”; when you are done with them, you will be more than ready to write your own papers of this type.