I remember getting ear-steaming mad at William F. Buckley, Jr. As much as I loved his magazine, “The National Review,” I muttered mild oaths every time I read one of his articles. He seemed incapable of writing a paragraph without at least a dozen million-dollar words to slow my reading and fog up his point.
This was back in the eighties, when I was fresh out of college and both my brain and vocabulary were at their best. (For those of you who would dare count back and calculate, let me save you the trouble. I was probably the oldest one in my graduating class, okay? Quit snoopin’.) But I still had a hard time following a Buckley article.
I wasn’t the only one either. Someone else sent a letter to the magazine and asked why Buckley couldn’t write more reader-friendly articles. His response, which struck me as the height of arrogance, was along the lines of: “If you don’t know the word, look it up.”
Sure. Let me just grab my Latin dictionary.
Although not all of Buckley’s readers were as bright as he would’ve wished, they aren’t as dumb as today’s writers seem to think they are, either.
I’ve been reading William Brohaugh’s Write Tight. After several chapters of teaching us how to streamline our writing, he tells us when not to streamline. One of those times is when tight writing reduces clarity. No one can argue with that, but this is his example: “I put the ball on my nose and spun it.”
Everyone knows what the “it” is–the ball. We know it’s the ball because noses don’t spin without the aid of a cartoonist. Still, Brohaugh suggests we write: “I put the ball on my nose, then spun the ball.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, either. It’s just unnecessary.
Or try this one, from Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love: “Sarah watched her mother speak with him while Sarah played with her doll near the fireplace.” Unless there is another Sarah in the room, this one is more distracting than if she’d simply written: “Sarah watched her mother speak with him while she played with her doll . . . .” We know Mom isn’t the one with the doll.
These examples border on insulting, as if we the readers aren’t capable of understanding unless the author spells things out for us. As much as I hate to admit it, I find such pronoun allergies in Christian fiction more frequently than in non-Christian fiction. In secular fiction, I often find the opposite: confusion resulting from just plain sloppy writing.
There has to be a happy medium. A place where common sense rules over writing guidelines, but the guidelines are still golden.