Recently The Wall Street Journal ran an article “When Being Too Smart Ruins Writing,” which tries to determine why so much writing is so bad.
The article was adapted from the new book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker.
If anyone is qualified to tackle the question of good writing, it is Pinker. He is the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and the chairman of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.
So why does he think so much writing is so obtuse and confusing?
“The most popular explanation is that opaque prose is a deliberate choice,” says the author. For example, “pseudo-intellectuals spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook.”
However, the author thinks that, in most cases, poor writing is not a deliberate choice, but “the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imaging what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.”
That’s why writers don’t bother to explain things. Use obscure jargon and references. Fail to explain their logic and show how they got from “A” to “B.”
This may seem trivial, but it is not. Disasters from the Charge of the Light Brigade to the Three Mile Island accident have been attributed to poor, obscure wording.
What does the author think can be done? He recommends showing the draft to “people similar to your intended audience and find out whether they can follow it.” Another approach is to let time pass and review the draft yourself. (I can certainly attest to the power of coming back to the draft, preferably a day or more later.)
The problem I see with articles and books on clear writing is that, for the most part, the people who should read them don’t. I’ll assume they don’t think they need them. And, who knows, they may be so busy writing (or trying to decipher) “highfalutin gobbledygook” that they don’t have time to realize others just “don’t get it.”
In reading the article, I was reminded of a client who told me that he wanted to make the “perfect presentation” at a conference. However, his definition of “perfect” was different from mine. “I don’t care if anyone understands what I’ve said,” he said with a straight face. “I just want it to be perfect.” I questioned what good it would do giving a “perfect presentation” if no one understood it. That didn’t seem to bother him.
And, I venture, poor writing does not bother poor writers. Maybe they, too, just want to make it “perfect.”
Unfortunately, the rest of us just want it to be understandable.
The article “When Being Too Smart Ruins Writing” was published on September 27, 2014. A review of the book appears here.