Clarity

Someone once challenged Ernest Hemingway to write a story in six words. Here’s what he wrote:

For sale: baby shoes, never used.

On Valentine’s Day, The New York Times posed a similar challenge to its readers: tell your own love story in six words. (I’m not clear on whether the challenge was Hemingway-inspired.) Not all were as tragic, but some were just as evocative:

Love hurts. Choose vodka or valium.

But our domestic partnership was notarized….

Note to self: avoid head cases.

It’s clear that few words are needed to tell a memorable story. In fact, some–maybe even most–stories are best told with clarity and brevity in mind.

This isn’t news to my fellow journalism school graduates, I know. But sometimes it seems like corporate America skipped that ever-important introductory college writing course.

William Zinsser, in his book “On Writing Well,” says it best: “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unneccessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon…But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”

It’s weird for me, a noted Hemingway hater and a notorious lover of flowery prose, to sit here preaching clarity in writing. Let it be known, though, that I practice what I preach, even if my reading tastes don’t reflect it. I’m the biggest Charles Dickens fan the world has ever seen, but that doesn’t mean I want all the profiles I write to sound like Dickens’ study of the fictional Tommy Traddles.

Practicing clarity is important in journalism for a number of reasons. For one, it ensures that a wide variety of readers, viewers and listeners can understand what’s going on. For another, it minimizes confusion in a story–the kind of confusion that can lead to lawsuits against reporters or angry backlash from readers, viewers and listeners. But most importantly, clarity leaves no room for passive statements, reiteration of the same phrase using different wording or “beating around the bush”–the kinds of devices politicians use in writing and speeches to drive weak arguments.

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” George Orwell wrote in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” The “our time” to which he refers is 1946, but today, his statement rings just as true. He continues:

“Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.”

People can use passive voice and vague phrases to defend all manner of cruel acts. Switching to active voice eliminates someone’s ability to beat around the bush. In active voice, the population isn’t just “transferred”; a person or entity has to be named in connection with the transfer. And in journalism, the vague word “transfer” doesn’t fly.

Why must we live in a world where tax forms, employment documents and healthcare pamphlets require multiple read-throughs and double-takes to understand? Journalists, especially those covering the business beat, regularly act as translators for the general public. But why should we need translators?

I ask you–or rather, Orwell asks you–do you understand this sentence?

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

That’s Orwell’s slightly exaggerated modern-day translation of this verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here’s my own translation, as clear and concise as I could muster. “Life is all about luck and timing. Even the strongest, smartest and fastest aren’t immune.”

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