Clarity, Expressiveness, and Artistry




Those are the three dimensions of writing. (I may change my mind about this tomorrow, but for now I’m going with these.

Clarity is about meaning – about saying what you mean in a way that will be understood by your readers. (Most of them, at least. Most of the time.)

I’ve already said that clarity is always important, and I really do believe that it always ought to be. Anyone who is deliberately trying to be obscure should just stop it right now! (This is your mother speaking.)  If you’re trying to impress people – If you think you’re being cleaver or deep – just give it a rest!

Obscure writing is like muddy water; it’s impossible to tell how deep it really is, and the only people you’re likely to fool are the ones even more insecure than you are.

And if you’re deliberately trying to mislead people… well, shame on you!

If you want an example of clear writing, just read anything I’ve written.  (…muffled laughter…)

Cultural transmission, the passing of information from one individual to another and from one generation to the next, is one of the capabilities that has helped make humans successful as a species. Language facilitates cultural transmission, and written language makes it possible for a person to pass on what he has learned to vastly more people than he could ever interact with directly in his lifetime. And it makes it possible for his wisdom to continue to enlighten people long after he is gone.

Writing is important. Don’t abuse it. It’s important to be accurate, and to be honest, and above all to be clear.

Expressiveness is about emotion. Clarity alone will suffice if you are trying to write instructions on how to clear a paper jam, or trying to explain the theory of Special Relativity, but there’s another entire dimension to human experience beyond the transmission of information. It has to do with what we call the heart and what we call the spirit. It has to do with what we feel, and being human means having a need to express what we feel.

Two examples:

The first is from a Quaker song and expresses hope and joy and expectation as an underlying current of the world and of a person’s life.

“My life goes on in endless song. Above earth’s lamentation, I hear the real though far off hymn that hails a new creation. Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing. It sounds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing.”

The second, as nearly opposite as it could be, is from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, unto the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

I prefer the first sentiment to the second, but there’s no denying that it’s hard to find a clearer expression of despair and the perception of life’s emptiness and futility than those lines from the Bard of Avon. (And again, you see that clarity is also important when conveying emotion.)

Artistry is about… well, artistry.  It’s about elegance, and eloquence, and grace.  It’s about rhythm, and timing, and the exact choice of words.  It’s about the perfect melding of what the writer is trying to say with how he says it so that it makes you say, “Oh Wow!”

There is artistry in the above two quotations; it’s part of what gives them their power.

Some more examples:

The first is from Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” (This is from my memory)

“Bows, and flows of angel hair, ice cream castles in the air, and feather canyons everywhere, I’ve looked at clouds that way. But now they only block the sun. They rain, they snow, on everyone. So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way.”

She does such beautiful visual description of cloud formations – “ice cream castles,” “feather canyons” – in the first part, then shifts the tone very skillfully in the second part, still maintaining the cloud theme while hinting that this is about more than clouds. It is: The second verse is built around the word “love” as this one is around “clouds”, and the third and final verse is about “life.” All together, it’s a very well-crafted lyric.

But  eloquence does not have to be so elaborate. It can be as simple as these four lines from a traditional folk song.

“There I sat on Buttermilk Hill. Who could blame me to cry my fill. And every tear would turn a mill. Johnny has gone for a soldier.”

The first two lines build towards that exquisite third line, a minor masterpiece in seven words. And the final line tells you why, in six words: direct, straightforward, unadorned.

(All those in favor of me stowing the analysis and just letting the quotations speak for themselves… just drop me a comment…)

Double Braino

Typographical Error

Typographical Error (Photo credit: futuraprime)

You will find errors in these posts, I’m sure, despite my best efforts. I’ve found some already and corrected them. One was a real doosey.

I found that where I had intended to write “loses sight”, I had written “looses site.”

Ouch!  Right there, staring at me: a double braino. (And here I am blogging about writing. Talk about major, major embarrassment!)

I’m trying for a neologism here with “braino”.  Maybe even an internet meme. (That would be really cool, but of course it assumes that someone actually reads this…)

A braino, you see, is intended to be somewhat similar to a typo. Both are inadvertent errors and not, I repeat, not, misspellings.

A misspelling happens, for example, when a person believes that he/she knows how to spell something and is simply wrong. Or alternatively it could happen when a person simply does not know how to spell a word, and makes a good-faith conscious effort, but unfortunately doesn’t get it right.

In the case of typos and brainos, the person does in fact know how to spell the word, but a glitch occurs somewhere in the process that begins with retrieval of the word from the memory banks and carries on through to the mechanical movements of the fingers that get the word typed onto the page, (or keyboarded onto the screen, or whatever).

Typos, of course, occur in the typing process. The movement of a finger is made inaccurately and the wrong key is struck, or rapid-fire sequences of finger movements are made in the wrong order with a similar result.

Brainos are errors that occur further upstream. Although the person knows what he or she means, the brain retrieves the wrong word and sends incorrect information to the fingers, which accurately type the incorrect information. How exactly does that happen? Well, I’m not sure, but I think that my typing “loose” instead of “lose” may relate to the fact that “lose” ought to be spelled “looze” – phonetically speaking. The sound of the word suggests the double “o.” As for “site” instead of “sight,” well, I had been dealing with a number of web-sites that day and thinking about how this site differed from that site. I think I may have just had site on the brain.

The spelling of “braino,” of course, reminds one of “typo,” and it’s meant to. This neologism is formed by analogy. It’s not a really good analogy, however, since “typo” is short for typographical error and there is no corresponding “brainological error” – nor, in fact, any such word as “brainological.” If braino were to become popular and the usage of “brainological” or “brainological error” were to subsequently appear, that would be an example of the linguistic phenomenon known as back-formation.

(And now I’m sure you know way more about this subject than you ever wanted to.)