Thursday, June 17, 2010

Well said

"For many centuries in the Western tradition, how well you expressed a position corresponded closely to the credibility of your argument. Rhetorical styles might vary from the spartan to the baroque, but style itself was never a matter of indifference. And “style” was not just a well-turned sentence: poor expression belied poor thought. Confused words suggested confused ideas at best, dissimulation at worst."

That's Tony Judt over at the NYRB blog. It's a point of view I happen to wholeheartedly agree with, if only because empirical observation proves it to be true. People who write badly think badly. Every now and then I'll grit my teeth and try to read something that's ungrammatical and badly structured because what it says might be 'important' (for a particularly egregious recent example, see here), and almost without exception the piece in question will turn out to be illogical, incoherent or just plain silly.

(This doesn't work in reverse, of course. The most exquisite prose may make no sense whatsoever).

I think the point is that lucid writing is a byproduct of a process of careful thought. The more deeply you think about an issue, the more word choices start to matter, the clearer the purpose of each phrase and each sentence becomes, and the more the sentences themselves fall into a natural order. Clarity of thought produces clarity of writing.

It's a standard too few people seem to care about.

10 comments:

Sheeba D'Mello said...

I've generally agree with most of your ideas - but this one took me by surprise.
This might be due to a right brain - left brain difference. There have been times when I was terrible at expressing things I've known intuitively. When I came back to the same thought a few months later, I suddenly knew exactly how it should have been said. But that didn't make the original thought any more or less real.
This is not the same as people who are just too lazy to think it out and structure it. It's more about people who are so caught up in a different plane that they can't tap in to the regular logic stream.
If this makes any sense at all.... Or is this just an example of a badly expressed idea?

km said...

It's a standard too few people seem to care about.

Make that "....too few people seem to understand".

Falstaff said...

Sheeba: I think we must be careful not to confuse what is right with what is clear. Your original intuition may be valid, but until you've thought it through and found a way to articulate it clearly it's not really a complete thought (and indeed, it's only when you've articulated it that you can really know whether it's valid or not). And however valid the initial intuition may be, until it's clearly articulated it's inaccessible to anyone reading it, so that it's less real in the sense that it's not an idea that anyone else can understand. Which is why reading something badly written is usually a waste of time. I'm not knocking the power of intuition, I'm simply suggesting that the path from an intuition to an idea / argument / theory lies through introspection and articulate exposition.

km: :-). Yes.

pj said...

I think it’s a bad idea to dismiss people who aren’t articulate. For one, it could simply be a language barrier, like Indians and English. Two, I’m not sure if u mean articulacy in writing alone or speech as well. In writing its an easier task, since, until u r done with the thought, ur views go unchallenged by offended looks, raised voices etc. etc. Three, as u said, we must not confuse what is right with what is clear. So for anybody who is trying to figure out what is right in a situation, trying to pick up on somebody else’s “intuition” and filling out the idea or argument themselves, is something that may serve their interests.

shunammite said...

Very provocative post and useful discussion, thanks to all. I will endorse both intuition and clear articulation. But for me personally, until I grapple with the intuition and try to communicate it somehow, I don't get much from it. Once I start trying to make it more concrete, more thoughts, more useful thoughts arise that I never would have found otherwise.

One more factor not mentioned is "pithiness". Something forced upon us by the internet - say it briefly or you may not be heard.

I am reluctant to discard poor communicators - on the internet, maybe yes, but in life - well not everyone can put things into words. Usually you can find out a lot by other means.

km said...

pj: IMO, Falstaff is not dismissing inarticulate people. He's dismissing inarticulate writing.

Big difference.

Falstaff said...

pj: I don't buy language barrier as an excuse. Why write in a language you don't think in?

The other two points apply more to speaking than they do to writing - and the post is really more about writing than it is about speaking (the title notwithstanding).

The distinction I'm trying to make is not so much between people who are instantly articulate (i.e. who can effortlessly put their thoughts into words) and those who have difficulty articulating their thoughts. The distinction I'm trying to make is between those who recognize that being articulate matters, that word choices and grammar and structure are important, and who will therefore take the time to articulate their thoughts as clearly as possible before putting them out there; and those who don't see the point of making that effort and can't be bothered to do so. I'm saying it's the latter we can safely ignore.

Not being able to articulate what you're thinking the moment it occurs to you is understandable, even normal. Not taking the time to articulate the thought before you put it out there is inexcusable.

shunammite: See above. Again, I don't think it's so much a question of ability as it is of motivation.

Anonymous said...

i think inability to complete sentences indicates that there is a lack of clarity of thought, if not that the person hasn't really thought things through fully (look at so many of the dialogues in Oleanna, made by the main character herself: she's exasperatingly incoherent and self-contradictory!)

that said, i also think your description of what 'good' writing is, is quite classist. a lot of grammatical ability and vocabulary depend on access to literature and good elementary education - and not everyone can afford these. that doesn't mean that it automatically follows that those who cannot afford this kind of education, and who lack the opportunity to explore the written word in depth, lack clarity of thought when they write. feminism has an abundance of examples to this end when under-privileged women of colour have spoken about issues to the more privileged phd-academician first world feminists! :)

while i do love 'good' writing (defined your way), grammar and vocabulary are often the superficial layer of a written argument. i think exposition, depth of exploration and perspectives make a big difference to quality especially in critical writing. - i guess this also what determines if 'pretty' writing is also 'good' writing.

i'm curious, how exactly do you think you will identify these people - "those who don't see the point of making that effort and can't be bothered to do so"? it seems a little loaded a statement to me!

- vakshakthi (:D)

Falstaff said...

vaksakthi: Sorry, but vocabulary is NOT superficial. Words matter, and choosing words loosely is a symptom of sloppy thinking. And good grammar is largely a matter of being able to organize your thoughts within a sentence. I don't see that education comes into it. I have no doubt that there are many examples of under-privileged women presenting compelling ideas; I do doubt, however, that their exposition of these ideas was anything but articulate. You don't need a fancy education to express yourself clearly.

In any case, the basis of my contention is largely empirical. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single piece I've read that was badly written but still had something insightful to say.

Finally, spotting those who can't be bothered is easy. You just criticize their writing and see how they react. If they apologize and try to rephrase the point more clearly, they're probably worth paying attention to. If they shrug off the criticism and act like grammar doesn't matter, they're not worth reading.

Sheeba D'Mello said...

I would agree with you on this if we are talking about education or writing and any other situation where one person's job is to get the idea across - it is definitely their responsibility to get the idea across most coherently.

I work in finance and I've recently switched roles from writing reports (where presentation was about 70% and content 30%) to formulating ideas - and communicating them in any form that is convenient. It's been a revelation to me, since I've always set store by spelling and grammar. A trader recently sent us a note on macro-economic indicators, in the middle of which she wrote 'leave' for 'live'. It took me a couple of seconds to figure that out. But her note was excellent in content and if I had dismissed it because of a spelling mistake, it would be my loss, not hers.