I am genuinely crippled by the fear of everyone finding out that I’m an idiot. Cause I am. I’m a real idiot. But I’m also a junkie for lyrical turns of phrase, even though I don’t really know how to use them. I mean I’ll still use them but usually at the expense of clarity.
For years, insecurity made my writing aimless and obscure. I only started the process of correcting this after discovering something remarkable: you can be an idiot and a good writer. Isn’t that crazy? It just takes us a couple more seconds of meditation and a pinch more self-control.
Mistaking density for sophistication is a symptom of the kind of bad writing that tends to go undetected because it’s often encouraged by misleading praise.
“What a lovely metaphor you’ve used here! ‘A flower shackled by the maw of despair.’ That sounds so cool! I mean I still don’t understand how bitcoin works but I’m probably just dumb.
“What a striking quote! I’m not sure what Schopenhauer has to do with the stock market but man, this author is well-read!”
“What colorful vocabulary! I had to read this article with a dictionary close at hand. I don’t think excessive mastication means what the author thinks it does, but boy, whatta sentence!
I can empathize with the desire to rush the development of voice, but thesaurus writing isn’t a shortcut, it’s a diversion – the scenic route has to be earned. A command of the English language isn’t evidenced by an itch to employ ten-dollar words nor an eagerness to boast exercises in extravagant anecdotes. A competent writer embraces brevity. Cogency is their master and the words they choose a reflection of such.
Of course how you say a thing is just as important as what you’re saying, but the former should never be at odds with the latter. On the subject, a colleague of mine summated it as neatly as one could: “A strong voice shows a writer comfortable enough with the source material to take risks.”
Style should be a mark of strong ideas not a “smokescreen” for soft-under baked ones. Anyway, interesting thoughts don’t need much dressing. Voice and clarity are only in conflict when the former is an apology for a “lack of understanding.” In other words: you don’t get to play outside until you’ve finished your homework.
Writers reporting on subjects that they aren’t well-versed in are susceptible to the kind of doubt that invariably leads to witless-cryptic-verbiage. “How do I provide validity to a piece penned by a fraud? I know! I’ll just stuff it with phrases like ‘standing disgrace’ and words like ‘malapropism.’” You don’t have to ape the parlance of an academician to convey a sense of authority. The fear of coming across like a simpleton is the most obvious feature of one.
Writing that aims to impress is doomed to do just the opposite. It’s much more difficult to write plainly. It’s a skill I’m still working on. As a literature fanboy, I can’t write a check without the ghosts of my heroes sneering at my shameful stabs at elegance.
It took me a long time to be at peace with the fact that if some miracle of science brought Orwell back from the dead, he might soon thereafter publish a piece titled “Shooting A CW.”
Hemingway would give me a swirly, Sylvia Plath would go to IKEA, Virginia Woolf would file a cease and desist and Larkin would have just a hair more things to fuel certain opinions of his. Acknowledging those that have influenced you isn’t the same as writing with them constantly in mind. If you write to be understood, and not simply to be marveled at this will take care of itself with some practice.
Style and Substance as one
Writer and comedian Emily Winer recently made news with a piece she published for the New Yorker entitled I Got Rejected 101 times. In it, she commands the virtues of clarity and voice to work toward a shared goal. Upon reading you immediately get a sense of who the author is as well as what she is trying to convey at that particular point in time.
Though Winter acknowledges the craft at work, the gears remain unseen. As an admirer of her attention to word economy both on stage and the page, I was compelled to inquire exactly how much clarity informs her process. She answered:
“I’ve scrapped many ideas because I couldn’t find the words to make it come alive the way it is in my head. On the other hand, I don’t hold onto a joke simply because it’s a good turn of phrase. This is the most cliche writing adage in the world, but you gotta kill those babies.”
She concedes: “A perfectly-constructed joke could ruin a script or essay simply because it doesn’t fit tonally. It’s important to recognize when that’s happening and cut those puppies loose.”
Fat becomes the enemy of writing that aims to entertain by calling attention to itself. As Winter puts it: “You don’t see a gorgeous dress and admire its seams; you see a gorgeous dress and admire it in its entirety. Drawing attention to how it’s constructed takes away from its overall purpose.”
Purpose is key. Let’s all make an effort to be more mindful in our inspection of words and their purpose. “Ill-placed, overabundant, or awkwardly-worded details can weigh a story down, but when done right, it’s what gives a project its flavor and makes it memorable.” she punctuates artfully.
When writing professionally or creatively, whether in the hopes of landing a job or contributing pieces for the job you already have, establish clarity as an absolute priority.