Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Literary Perspective on Clarity

The ABA Journal has a fascinating piece up that excerpts Bryan Garner's interview of the late David Foster Wallace, novelist and author of Infinite Jest.  Wallace's advice goes to the heart of the issue I often face with students trained to write by academics:

Garner: A lot of lawyers say to me they’re writing for judges who themselves don’t write very well, who write a lot of jargon-laden stuff, so they think the best expressive tactic is to mimic the style of the judges for whom they are writing. Does that make sense to you?

Wallace: This gets very tricky. The same thing happens in academia. When students enter my classes, very often what I end up doing is beating out of them habits they were rewarded for in high school—many of them having to do with excessive abstraction, wordiness, overcomplication, excessive reliance on jargon, especially in literary criticism.

Somebody like a judge or a professor who is himself [whispering] a really bad writer is nevertheless usually a really good reader. And he or she will not necessarily make the number of connections you’re worried about when you worry that “if I turn in this pellucid, lapidary marvel, somehow the judge won’t like it because it’s not like the judge’s own style.”

I would say if judges are like profs, 99 percent of them will reward you for clarity, for precision, for minimizing the unnecessary effort they have to make. And it probably won’t occur to them that it would be a darned good idea to incorporate some of these principles into their own writing because some people are just dumb as writers.

So that is an argument, I think, for: Regardless of whom you’re writing for or what you think about the current debased state of the English language, .... the fact remains, particularly in the professions, that the average person you’re writing for is an acute, sensitive, attentive, sophisticated reader who will appreciate adroitness, precision, economy and clarity. Not always, but I think the vast majority of the time.

(dbb)

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