We’ve all read books and articles in which ideas rendered by verbose, obscure language are tied up into long sentences and knotted paragraphs.
I know I have.
When I started reading for my Ph.D on narrative structures I needed aspirin to keep the headaches away. I even considered going on antidepressants. How could I ever contribute to the field when I could not even understand the gist of what I was reading?
I understood the words of course. My problem was not a limited vocabulary. My problem was making sense of the convoluted way experts expressed themselves.
Their approach was to pack as much complexity, eccentricity, and obscurity into a sentence as possible; balance as many relative clauses on the back of the main clause and add as many qualifiers and modifiers to it as they could.
Do it consistently and you’d be allowed to join that exclusive club from which the common person is barred by default: The specialists club.
It was hard going but I stuck to the task. I remember the day of my breakthrough. I was sitting on the Ipswich train from Brisbane. The ride home was a good half-hour and I often used the time to catch up on my reading. I was wading through postmodernism and had previously failed to make much headway.
Then it happened. A particularly obscure paragraph suddenly flicked into focus. I blinked and read it again.
Yes, it definitely made sense. So did the next paragraph. And the next. Before long, I found I understood the whole chapter.
I quietly congratulated myself. I was no longer masquerading as an academic. I was an academic. I could not only understand the speak, I would soon be able to emulate it.
It was not long before my writing and speech adopted the mannerisms of a specialist. I solicited nods and smiles from fellow academics and frowns and head-shakes from everyone else.
I had arrived.
It was only years later, after niggling doubts about the usefulness of obscure forms of expression were fanned by my experience in lecturing college students, that I began to investigate the alternatives.
I poured over every style manual I could get my hands on—from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, to Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.
I became convinced that language that explores difficult concepts and ideas need not in itself be difficult to understand. Clear and precise writing that illuminates rather than confounds, writing that is accessible to anyone with a mastery of English, is preferable even when discussing academic matters. This is not dumbing-down language. It is making it more democratic—surely the tacit goal of any discipline.
You may notice from this post that I have not quite managed to expel the very elements I criticise from my own writing. The road to brevity, clarity, and precision is strewn with detours, but I am trying to stay on it.
My students are always the first to tell me when I stray.
Aim for brevity, precision, and clarity in writing.
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Image: James Arboghast