Friday, May 4, 2012

Crusading for Careful Crisp Writing

I begin with a story of a time in a graduate writing class. We were assigned to write dissertation abstracts. It was time to share our work. A colleague projected hers with the instructor's document camera. We could all read what she wrote except that I could not make out what the abstract was all about. The writing was convoluted and full of technical words from the specific subject area. Surprisingly, everyone around me applauded and the instructor lavished praise on her.

This was several years back. I wished I had said something about using jargon to the extent that readers from other fields could not comprehend her writing. But I did not want to rain on her parade. I would have been the kid who saw that the Emperor wore no clothes. Would anyone believe me? Was I the only one who was dumb maybe?

Like several things that happen around us, any effort or phenomenon that is worth sustaining involves a complexity of support and investment. Writing to me requires aptitude and great care to produce sharp writing. It is a craft that is in danger of being threatened by the 140-letter invasion of Twitter into daily living. By a society that prizes rushing about to finish things and enjoy instant gratification.

In higher education institutions, I'm astounded by the level of poor writing that goes on that suffices for graduation. I'm no Shakespeare or Austen, I'm simply a crusader for the return of non-jargonistic, clear crisp writing. (Throw in some creativity sometimes, if parameters are not defined too tightly!) Is this too much to ask?

How do I aim to write clearly and crisply?
1. My dissertation chair reminds me that it's alright to write at my own pace and style. Many PhD students, understandably, are about spitting it out first. This doesn't work for me. With this approach, I didn't like my writing and this then becomes demotivating. Like her, I treat most things I do like a work of art. I like to craft my objet d'art carefully. There needs to be a happy balance between time and quality, but I won't trade quality for much else.

2. Precision. She reminded me to mean what I say and say what I mean, yes, in Howard Becker's tradition. She learned from him, and I learn from her about him and what he recommends.

3. Clarity. The question I always ask myself as I write is: Is this absolutely clear to my reader? Can I say this in fewer words and still mean the same thing?

Onward to my own niche writing.  

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