Sunday, February 12, 2012

Keep it simple ...

West Indian playwright, Paul Keens-Douglas, performs a monologue about a woman entering a beauty contest. Keens-Douglas spends several weeks preparing her, but, the night before the contest, her friends give her the following advice:

"If you want to win the competition, you have to use big words."

The result of her attempts to follow this advice is hilarious.

I suspect that is bit of mis-advice is passed on from generation to generation of writers. You know the books, the ones where you have to read a sentence three times before (a) you understand, or (b) you give up, deciding that you must be an imbecile.

In my latest editing course, we are analysing sentences that seem difficult to understand and "defraging" them so that we can not only improve them, but we can understand why they leave the reader lost. Joseph M. Williams and Gregory G. Colomb, co-authors of "Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace," explain one problem very clearly when they state:

"Readers think sentences are clear and direct when they see key actions in their verbs ... even more, they want characters as subjects."

Seems simple enough, right?

Take this sentence:
"Following the successful resolution of their disagreements, the participants engaged in amicable discussions of the future of the program."

Seems quite innocuous, however, the actions ("resolution" and "discussion") are hidden as nouns and the characters (participants) seem secondary. Switching it around, the sentence is less pompous and much easier to understand.

"After the participants' disagreements were resolved, they amicably discussed the future of the program." (I am sure this can be improved even further).

I said all of that just to say that while flowery language and grand descriptions have their place, much of our writing can benefit from the generous application of the simple rule above.

4 comments:

G said...

Which is why I loathe literary fiction.

I don't like having to re-read a sentence/paragraph multiple times in order to understand it.

I think that flowery language should be confined to the blog world, where it makes perfect cannon fodder for mocking others.

Liane Spicer said...

There's no excuse for abstruse prose, unless it's meant to impress one's fellow professors and win literary prizes. :-/

That said, I'd like to point out to G that there's literary prose and literary prose. I enjoy the occasional vocabulary challenge, but if the prose itself is dense and pretentious it takes me out of the story. I've read literary novels that I refused to finish, by authors whose work I'll never touch again. I've also read sublime literary novels. Can't paint all lit. with the same brush.

Charles Gramlich said...

That original sentence sounds less literary and more academic. I see this often in academic writing, the use of big words for big words sake. Sometimes you have to have them and there is no alternative, but often they are an ego sort of thing for the writer rather than a true attempt to communicate

KeVin K. said...

Academic writing is deliberately passive. It's very similar to clinical writing in that regard. As though it is a virtue to render events bloodless and depict all actions as states of being.

I once attempted a pastiche by rephrasing a Hemingway story in rarefied high acadamian. It didn't work at all (not as bad as my Kierkegaard writing as Hemingway experiment, but pretty bad). I still like the idea, though, and may try again when my skills are up to it.