Obscure Writing Is Not Evidence of Profound Thinking
The two main principles of Joseph Williams’ Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace are (1) it is good to write clearly and (2) anyone can.
But not everyone agrees with the first premise.
One of the reasons this happens is that when we “read about a complex subject written in a complex style, we too easily assume that such complexity signals deep thought, and so we try to imitate it, compounding our already confused writing.”
Take for example, the following quote from theologian John Milbank. Now it may actually be “deep”—but it’s hard to know because this 128-word sentence is almost incomprehensible in its verbosity and complexity:
But since “return to self” is not after all quite perfectly reflexive at that point at which it must also seek to be a return to its own higher origin, which is inseparable from its inner selfhood, one can see that self reflection (as Plotinus already taught) is equally a “failed” attempt (though this failure has the positive value of apophasis) at perfection reflection, which in its “failure” constructs the world beneath the psyche and it thereby the “giving” to be of material reality in its diverse modes—even though, for Proclus already, this is the work of higher not human souls, since the latter are rather “fully descended” into the body (and therefore have their realm of donation within the realm of the imagination, culture and history).
But the “turgid style” is by no means unique to theologians. Williams also cites laments from critics of several disciplines.
On the language of the social sciences
“A turgid and polysyllabic prose does seem to prevail in the social sciences. . . . Such a lack of intelligibility, I believe, usually has little or nothing to do with the complexity of thought. It has to do almost entirely with certain confusions of the academic writer about his own status.”
—C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination
On the language of medicine:
“It now appears that obligatory obfuscation is a firm tradition within the medical profession. . . . [Medical writing] is a highly skilled, calculated attempt to confuse the reader. . . . A doctor feels he might get passed over for an assistant professorship because he wrote his papers too clearly—because he made his ideas seem too simple.”
—Michael Crichton, New England Journal of Medicine
On the language of the law:
“In law journals, in speeches, in classrooms and in courtrooms, lawyers and judges are beginning to worry about how often they have been misunderstood, and they are discovering that sometimes they cannot even understand each other.”
—Tom Goldstein, New York Times
Why not follow the counsel of intellectuals like C.S. Lewis and George Orwell who knew how to communicate with clarity and grace? Lewis wrote in Letters to Children, p. 64:
- Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
- Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
- Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
- In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.”
- Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
And here are Orwell’s elementary rules for using non-literary use of “language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.