William Hazlitt was a journalist, novelist, and critic as well as an essayist. He has become well known as the preeminent essayist of the early nineteenth century and as a significant precursor of modern conventions in essay writing. During his lifetime, however, his prose was often criticized for excessive familiarity and even vulgarity. Hazlitt analyzed his own style, partly in response to his critics, in the 1826 essay “On the Familiar Style.” It begins,
It is not easy to write a familiar style. Many people mistake a familiar for a vulgar style.
The basic premise of “familiar style” is the effort to strike a balance between correct, formal writing and prose that sounds natural to the reader: “You must steer a middle course.” Hazlitt insists that it is harder, not easier, to write in this style. He says that people are wrong if they “suppose that to write without affectation is to write at random.” His texts are meticulously constructed and well planned, and all his choices are deliberate, even when they may seem casual or careless.
Hazlitt tries to be sincere and honest in his writing. He rejects empty, overly formal phrasing, which he calls “unmeaning pomp.” He also aims to avoid references to other works for the sake of seeming learned, terming this the use of “loose, unconnected, slipshod allusions.” Instead, Hazlitt greatly values “precision … and … purity of expression.” This purity requires, rather than command of formal or archaic vocabulary, true mastery of everyday language.
To write a genuine familiar or truly English style, is to write as any one would speak in common conversation who had a thorough command and choice of words.
This type of writing stems from consideration for the reader, who should be able to follow the text as easily as someone listening in a conversation. Furthermore, an individual’s style will vary with the context, as the writer deliberately suits their own style to the subject matter under consideration.