"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

25 June 2006

On Serving the Reader

I've been reading a book on writing by John R. Trimble (Writing with Style), which is okay, although he comes perilously close to advocating the 5-paragraph essay and actually tells his readers to punctuate according to the pauses they hear when they read their work. Some of you will know these concepts will forever keep me from recommending the book to anyone who is a novice writer.

What Trimble has that I love, however, is lots of quotes from other writers. From John Mason Brown:

"It is in the hard, hard rock-pile labor of seeking to win, hold, or deserve a reader's interest that the pleasant agony of writing again comes in."

Ah, yes. The joy of writing lies in coming as close as humanly possible to saying what one means, and saying it so that others can understand it. The quote also reminds me that a writer must earn his audience. Only students in school have a captive audience who must read what they write no matter how "slipshod and inaccurate" [thank you, Dr. J :)] it may be. The rest of us must earn a hearing, and the morally right way to do so is to be clear and honest.

It is, of course, possible to earn an audience through a kind of eloquence that holds no meaning. Just use as many abstract words in easy-to-form phrases as you can, and there's always a crowd who will ooh and aah over your genius. (For an excellent treatise on this, try George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language.") But the real writer wants none of this. He wants to say something that he is convinced is important, and he wants his reader to understand exactly what it is and why it is important: he wishes above all else to be clear.

"And how is clarity achieved?" asks F. L. Lucas (also quoted in Trimble). "Mainly by taking trouble; and by writing to serve people rather than to impress them."

Indeed, there is the heart of the matter. So many of my students think they must impress me. (They have good reason to believe this, given their first twelve years of schooling.) And so they use big words and long phrases and abstractions that carry fuzzy feel-good connotations . . . and are then shocked to find the lowest grade they've ever received.

The ones who learn from this learn exactly what Lucas asserts: that I am looking for writing which serves its readers; writers who respect their readers enough to make their ideas as crystal-clear as they can and who respect themselves enough to make those ideas honest, true to their convictions; writers who do not wish to waste their readers' time and thus take whatever of their own time is necessary to accomplish this goal.

Even when one writes for oneself, this principle holds; why should I bother to journal if I weren't honestly seeking some sort of clarity of thought, truthfulness that will serve me as I embrace or reject the ideas I explore? I serve myself in my personal writing, and surely I should love my neighbor as myself when I write for others.

"Writing to serve people": what other reason can there be to bother?

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