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…)

Previous Post
Leave a comment


  1. kathy jones

     /  February 28, 2012

    Really, really nice comments abut writing. I agree with all you said.
    Miss you sometimes, believe it or not!

    Kathy Jones (former Friday job club member)

  2. Kathy, so good to hear from you, and thanks for visiting my blog. (I’m still learning the ropes.)
    Gonna write you a longer reply elsewhere.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: