The Craftsmanship of Writing/The Question of Clearness

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The Craftsmanship of Writing by Frederic Taber Cooper
The Question of Clearness

CHAPTER VI

THE QUESTION OF CLEARNESS

We have seen in an earlier chapter that the first step towards good craftsmanship is to have a clear underlying purpose, and also that the resulting written work will be judged largely in accordance with the degree of nearness that it has attained in carrying that purpose out. But it is necessary to remember always that your book will be judged not according to the purpose as you have formulated it somewhere in the background of your own brain, but as you have expressed it in your written words. There is small use in having any underlying purpose at all until you have learned how to convey your meaning to others,—in other words, until you have learned the paramount importance of clearness.

Clearness is so inseparable an element of all good writing that many a critic and rhetorician has regarded it as a term almost synonymous with that illusive quality called style. Professor A. S. Hill, for instance, who for so many years occupied the chair of English at Harvard University, chose to divide style under three heads : to the intellectual quality of style he gave the name, "Clearness;" to the emotional, "Force;" and to the aesthetic, "Elegance." And many another teacher of rhetoric has similarly invented his own special classification and definition. But according to the ordinary and common sense understanding of the terms, clearness is not so much an element of style as it is a condition precedent to it, just as health is not beauty, but a condition precedent to beauty. Clearness may be that crystal transparency of word and phrase that belongs to finished art, or it may be the mere dry bones of fact picked clean of the last shred and fragment of adornment. For example, a washing list or a recipe for making Dill pickles may be perfectly clear, but there is a manifest absurdity in speaking of either as possessing style. But whether the dividing line between clearness and style is vague or sharply defined, there can be no question that if one must choose between the two evils it is far better to sacrifice the second of these qualities than the first. The writer who has said something definite and intelligible has achieved a tangible result even though he may have said it very badly; but the writer whose meaning is obscure has accomplished nothing at all, however well balanced and harmonious his phrases may sound. It is well to remember that the true function of words, like that of all building materials, is to be useful first and ornamental afterwards; and that for the greater part of what we have to say the simplest phrasing is the best, just as the really well dressed man is he whose clothes possess that quiet refinement which does not obtrude. But a scorn of flamboyant neckties and checkerboard trousers is no excuse for going to the opposite extreme of a blue flannel shirt and overalls; and when Stendhal in his intolerance of over elaboration and rhetorical flourish boasted that he formed his own style by daily readings of the Civil Code, he erred as badly on his side as the models he avoided erred on theirs. The best evidence that you are in sound bodily health is that it does not occur to you to think about it; and similarly a healthy literary style is that which does nothing overtly to direct our attention to it.

Now it seems as though the quality of clearness ought to need no definition; as though anyone possessed of normal understanding ought to grasp the fact that it simply denotes the ability to express in words any particular thought that you may have shaped in your mind and to express it in such succinct and unmistakable terms that any reader of ordinary intelligence will receive in his own brain a faithful image of that thought and be able at request to mirror it faithfully back to you in his own words. Yet, as a matter of fact, clearness is a quality that is either very much misunderstood or else quite wantonly disregarded. There are a large number of writers, and able writers too, who seem to think that they are quite clear enough if they get their thoughts down in a form capable of being understood by the reader who goes to work to extract the meaning with something of that energy with which one applies the nut-cracker to a refractory nut. This whole question of clearness has been so admirably discussed by Anthony Trollope in his Autobiography that I cannot do a greater service to young writers than by quoting it in its entirety:

Any writer who has read even a little will know what is meant by the word intelligible. It is not sufficient that there be a meaning that may be hammered out of the sentence, but that the language should be so pellucid that the meaning should be rendered without an effort of the reader;—and not only some proposition of meaning, but the very sense, no more and no less, which the writer has intended to put into his words. What Macaulay says should be remembered by all writers: "How little the all-important art of making meaning pellucid is studied now! Hardly any popular author except myself thinks of it." The language used should be as ready and as efficient a conductor of the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader as the electric spark which passes from one battery to another battery. In all written matter the spark should carry everything; but in matters recondite the recipient will search to see that he misses nothing, and that he takes nothing away too much. The novelist cannot expect that any such search will be made. A young writer, who will acknowledge the truth of what I am saying, will often feel himself tempted by the difficulties of language to tell himself that some one little doubtful passage, some single collocation of words, which is not quite what it ought to be, will not matter. I know well what a stumbling-block such a passage may be. But he should leave nothing behind him as he goes on. The habit of writing clearly soon comes to the writer who is a severe critic to himself.

As a broad generalization, the concluding words of the above passage may be accepted as true enough in the case of the writer who has learned self-criticism and whose fault lies simply in a careless or slovenly use of English. But unfortunately there are many kinds and grades of obscurity ranging all the way from the obscurity of ignorance and stupidity to the obscurity that comes of too much learning and of hair-splitting analysis,—all the way from an inability to think clearly down to an erudition with which the reader cannot keep pace. There is nothing to be gained by classifying and distinguishing, after the fashion of a school rhetoric, the various kinds of obscurity that it is possible to find in literature,—by dividing what is ambiguous from what is vague and again what is vague from what is really obscure; because, while it is possible to make such a classification to almost any degree of minuteness that you choose, all these different kinds of verbal turbidness go back to one or more of the four primal causes that stand in the way of clearness; and the important thing is to get these four causes definitely in our minds.

The simplest way in which to approach the whole question is to recognize that when we write a book or a magazine article we are under a sort of implied contract to the class of readers whom we are trying to reach,—that we have pledged ourselves to tell them something which we assume that they want to know. Now, in order to fulfil this obligation, we must bring about what the legal fraternity are fond of speaking of as "a meeting of minds,"—and of course there can be no meeting of minds unless we have learned to write intelligibly. There is no implied contract to write with any specified degree of form and elegance, any more than there is any agreement on the part of the express company which delivers the book or magazine to bring it in an automobile or a coach-and-four. The express company simply agrees to deliver the goods; and when we write, we agree, first of all, to deliver the ideas, and if we are obscure we have not delivered them.

Now in order that the minds of author and reader shall meet, there are four conditions requisite: first, that the author shall know what he is trying to say; second, that he shall be able to say it in the simplest terms; third, that his language shall be adapted to the requirement of his readers; fourth, that his thoughts shall not be beyond their range of comprehension. Perhaps you have been criticised for your want of clearness and you come to me for help. The first thing to find out is which of the above four requisites is your stumbling-block. Of course, if the trouble comes from the first, an inability to think clearly; if your thoughts are a muddle, if you are too lazy to straighten them out, there is no use in talking to you about how to write clearly. There is no use in expecting clearness from a slough; and the more accurately you succeed in mirroring back your own mental attitude the more hopelessly turbid what you write is bound to be. The first thing to do is to try to guide your thoughts into a straight channel and get them gradually into the habit of flowing deep and clear,—somewhat after the fashion that marshlands are redeemed by a system of irrigation ditches. Your trouble may be simply inexperience, or laziness; or again it may be a constitutional inability to think logically, a fundamental lack of one vital element of the inborn talent.

But let us assume that you have learned to think clearly. The next step is to learn to write as clearly as you think. If your stumbling-block lies at this point, there is hope for you. If you know what you want to say and yet manage to tangle up your thoughts in a snarl of words, that is sheer bad writing and there is no excuse for it. No one who can think straight has any business to write badly. There is no necessity for it, because it is the easiest of all errors for which to obtain outside help. It is a simple question of fact whether a given paragraph does or does not convey the meaning you want it to when read by the casual reader of average intelligence. It is not a matter of expert judgment; it involves no canon of art any more than the question whether a landscape painter's picture of a Holstein cow looks like a cow or a black and white sign-post. If a country-bred child, looking at that cow, calls it a sign-post, all the art critics in the world cannot free that painter from the reproach of obscurity. So, if you are in doubt whether or not you write clearly you need not apply to a professional critic. You can always find someone near at hand to help you, some patient, long-suffering member of your immediate family circle, and preferably someone who is not literary,—someone who more nearly represents the so-called "general public." Read your paragraphs to him and then ask him, "What does this mean to you? What have I tried to say?" If your amateur critic is dubious, if he arrives at a wrong idea, or catches the right one only after an obvious effort, then what you have written is badly done and must be written over. Now of course he cannot tell you just why it is badly done, or what particular words and phrases are misleading, or what would be the simplest twist by which to remedy them. He simply throws the burden back on you where it belongs; you will have to grope for the remedy; and a little groping, a little more hard work will not hurt you. What your friend has done is simply to serve a purpose analogous to that of retranslation in the case of documents such as patent-right papers or international treaties, where the first translator turns the original from English into French, and a second translator reconverts it into English,—and if the last version differs from the original, the translation must be all done over.

But besides the practical method of experimenting with your writings on your friends, there are a few simple principles to keep in mind that will often save you from stumbling. Do not let rules of rhetoric and style stand in the way of clearness; cheerfully break any one of them rather than be obscure. It may be villainously bad style to allow the same word to recur half a dozen times upon a page; but it would be better to repeat that word half a dozen times within a single line rather than to lack clearness. Professor Barrett Wendell offers a case in point when he writes:

Clearness I may best define as the distinguishing quality of a style that cannot be misunderstood. To be thoroughly clear, it is not enough that style express the writer's meaning; style must so express this meaning that no rational reader can have any doubt as to what the meaning is. To come as near clearness as I could, for example, I deliberately avoided pronouns in that last sentence, repeating style and meaning with a clumsiness defensible only on the score of lucidity.

And Macaulay, discussing the use of the French word, abbé, in place of the English, abbot, expresses the same rule even more forcibly:

We do not like to see French words introduced into English composition: but, after all, the first law of writing, that law to which all other laws are subordinate, is this, that the words employed shall be such as convey to the reader the meaning of the writer. Now an abbot is the head of a religious house; an abbé is quite a different sort of person. It is better undoubtedly to use an English word than a French word; but it is better to use a French word than to misuse an English word.

And in this connection we must not forget the words of the genial Autocrat of the Breakfast Table: "The divinity student looked as if he would like to question my Latin. No sir, I said,—you need not trouble yourself. There is a higher law in grammar not to be put down by Andrew and Stoddard."

If you would be clear cultivate simplicity and brevity. But remember that brevity is not always synonymous with the smallest possible number of words. As Edgar Allan Poe once wisely wrote: "The most truly concise style is that which most rapidly transmits the sense. … Those are mad who admire brevity which squanders our time for the purpose of economizing our printing-ink and paper." Never hesitate to use as many words as are required to convey your meaning, your whole meaning and nothing but your meaning, beyond the shadow of a doubt. A rather good way to acquire a simple style is to try to write more in the manner of ordinary conversation. And the reason for this may be readily understood by analogy with a simple rule for fencing, laid down in one of Marion Crawford's Italian novels, by his memorable duelist, the melancholy Spicca. We are accustomed, Spicca explained, from early childhood, to point at things with our index finger; indeed, through immemorial generations it has become a sort of inborn instinct. We have no need to close one eye and carefully sight along the finger: we point with an accuracy that is almost incredible. But it does not come naturally to us to point with a stick or a sword; and that is why Spicca acquired his wonderful dexterity by simply laying his index finger along the blade of his weapon and pointing with that. In like manner, we have all been accustomed from childhood to point, as it were, with spoken words; and this we do with a fair degree of accuracy, for otherwise we should frequently fail to obtain what we want. But we have not been accustomed from childhood to point with written words; so it is at least an experiment worth trying to lay the index finger of ordinary conversation along the written line and see if this does not improve the accuracy of our aim.

Some reader is almost certain to raise the objection that the result of such an experiment will be an excess of colloquialism. But there is no foundation for any such fear. It would be impossible by any means short of a phonograph to emulate the carelessness, the redundancy, the elisions and slurrings of even rather careful conversation. In fiction where a trained and observant author deliberately tries his best to make the conversation of his characters quite like that of real life, he almost invariably errs on the side of artificiality, always makes them speak a little more carefully than they really do. And what holds true of conversation of course applies with double strength to narrative description or critical analysis. But the effect of the colloquial tone while never quite reaching the level of actual conversation does tend to make the general tone of serious reading lighter and more inviting. "The writing," says Miss Edgeworth, "which has least the appearance of literary manufacture almost always pleases me the best;" while St. Beuve is still more outspoken: "To accustom oneself," he says, "to write as one speaks and as one thinks, is that not already a long step towards accustoming oneself to think wisely?"

One method which I personally have found to work well, both in my own case and in that of other writers of my acquaintance, is to thresh out a difficult episode or problem in conversation, talking the whole thing over, sometimes with several people in succession, and thus gradually clarifying the underlying thought and crystallising the form of its expression. It often happens that some phrase or expression which has baffled and eluded us for days in the privacy of our study suddenly flashes into definite shape in the heat of a discussion; or the one tantalising word that a phrase lacked to clinch the meaning beyond question leaps to the tip of the speaker's tongue when it had persistently refused to come at the call of the pen. And after all is not this a perfectly natural and easily understood consequence of the way in which the whole art of literary composition must have developed? Authorship antedates by unmeasured centuries the discovery of letters and the art of writing. The inherited habit of composition in the form of oral verse and prose is vastly older than our modern practice of secluding ourselves and scratching down rows of little black symbols on a white expanse of paper, or still more incongruously tapping celluloid keys with the tips of our fingers. The whole advantage of the conversational method, however, has nowhere been more delightfully expressed than by Oliver Wendell Holmes, through the lips of the Autocrat:

I rough out my thoughts in talk, as an artist models in clay. Spoken language is so plastic,—you can pat or coax, and spread and shave, and rub out and fill up, and stick on so easily, when you work that soft material, that there is nothing like it for modeling. Out of it come the shapes which you turn into marble or bronze in your immortal books, if you happen to write such.

But it does no good to think and to write clearly, unless you write in a language intelligible to the class of readers whom you are trying to reach. The most crystalline prose of the clearest French thinkers remains meaningless to the reader possessed of only a smattering of Ollendorf. As our familiarity with a foreign tongue progresses, the very last stage of proficiency is that complete and instantaneous comprehension, as the eye glances down the printed page, with no sense of effort, no consciousness of an intervening veil. In a minor degree, we all know how irksome even a very clever dialect story may become; the page is studded over with words and phrases that convey, first of all, a sense of strangeness. An account of a horse-race or a prize-fight, in the sporting columns of our daily papers may be admirably lucid to the readers for whom it is intended; but to many of us it speaks in an unknown tongue. Professor Barrett Wendell, in his chapter on Clearness, already referred to, gives a rather amusing example drawn from football parlance. Centre-rush and half-back, and a score of similar words, he admits, are regularly constructed compounds formed from perfectly familiar English words and yet to him devoid of any definite meaning. But, he goes on to say, he has been informed and he believes that there are students in his own lecture courses to whom these same words have a real significance. Similarly, a treatise on some special branch of physics or botany or civil engineering may be couched in the clearest possible terms and yet convey no meaning at all to the reader unversed in those sciences. For instance, I open quite at random the fourth volume of a recent Reference Handbook of the Medical Science and I learn:

Double hemiplegia is synonymous with cerebral paraplegia, both indicating a paraplegia of intracranial origin, involving the cerebral motor-tracts.

A peripheral paraplegia may be produced by a multiple neuritis involving the peripheral nerves of both lower extremities in such a symmetrical manner as closely to resemble spinal-cord lesions.

I am quite prepared to believe that there is nothing intricate in the thought that lies concealed behind this barrier of technical vocabulary; I simply realise that I am not one of the readers for whom it was intended. But for me it might just as well be the "washing list in Babylonian cuneiform" of which we are told by Gilbert and Sullivan's Modern Major General.

If you are writing upon a technical subject for a special public, you must use a special vocabulary. If you are the sporting editor on a daily paper, you must write of football in football jargon; but on the other hand, if you are discussing the educational value of football in a pedagogical magazine, you will use a different and simpler terminology. And in each case what you write may be quite clear to the audience for whom you intend it. The only thing to guard against is the chance of making a mistake in your audience, the danger of attributing to them a special knowledge which they do not possess. For that reason, it is a good plan to underrate rather than overrate the average intelligence of your readers. Any physician can understand what has happened if you say that a man has broken the bones of his forearm, but readers who are not physicians may have to stop and think if you write that he has suffered a fracture of both radius and ulna.

And in the fourth place, your vocabulary may be of the simplest and yet your work may convey to a large majority of readers a sense of inpenetrable density. There are, for instance, some branches of higher mathematics in which a person with a fair average knowledge of algebra and geometry will encounter no terms or symbols that are strange to his eye; and yet the meaning of what he reads will leave his mind absolutely blank. The difficulty in this case lies outside of any question of craftsmanship; it is inherent in the subject matter itself. When you come across a book or article of this type you have to recognize that it is not intended for you, or at least that you are not yet ripe for it. The novels of Mr. Henry James are one of the best possible instances of this type of book. Mr. James has mannerisms, many of them; he has a curious, and to some readers an exasperatingly confusing way of introducing all his modifiers, his provisos and saving clauses parenthetically before reaching the conclusion of his main sentence. But all of these things put together would not account for the difficulty that many people find in reading Henry James. The real secret of his obscurity lies much deeper. It is because he is attempting to pursue his analysis of the human heart and soul to an unattainable point; to differentiate motives with a hair-splitting minuteness. His books are a form of experimental psychology too intricate and erudite ever to be expressed with perfect clearness. And when we encounter this sort of obscurity we must recognise that it is something which is inherent in the subject matter itself; in other words, that the book is one of limited appeal to a specially chosen audience.