Clarity and Precision

In the kind of writing most of us do every day—the kind of writing I’ve mainly been concerned with in these columns—the only criteria that matter are clarity and precision.

The kind of writing that most of us do every day: I’m talking about expository writing, analytical writing, writing that is not narrative fiction or poetry.

(And even as I make this distinction I am aware of how flimsy these generic categories are. Even analytical writing is basically narrative, having a formally strict beginning, method of proceeding, and an unambiguous end. And Chaucer’s advice that “the end is every tale’s strength” is as true for an environmental analysis as for a novel.

And in writing, the practical, generic distinction between fact and fiction is virtually useless. One of my favorite little nuggets of etymological wisdom is to note that these words “fact” and “fiction,” which for us are diametric opposites, come from two Latin words that mean the same thing: “fact” comes from facere, which means to shape, to make, as in manuFACTure, and “fiction” comes from the Latin word fingere, which also means to shape, to make, as in what we use fingers for.)

But in the kind of writing most of us do every day, the only two criteria that matter are clarity and precision. What we write should be clear, and it should be accurate, a close approximation of whatever it is we’re trying to explain.

The writer’s problem is that those two criteria are consummated only in the minds of the readers.

A sentence or paragraph may be perfectly clear in my own mind and still leave the reader scratching his or her head. I’ve read a lot of sentences like that, sentences where the writer surely had some clear idea in mind when writing, but there’s no clue for the reader what that clear idea might have been.

Sure, we need to be clear in our own minds about what we’re saying. That much seems obvious. But even this first step sometimes gets neglected. It’s hard to imagine a writer not beginning there, but sometimes we use words as fictions designed to mask the fact that we have no idea what we’re talking about. (Can you say “Donald Trump?”)

My knowing what I’m talking about is never enough. Writing is the act of ensuring that readers know what I’m talking about.

It seems odd even to have to say so. It seems even odd to have to say so.

Odd. Even. Even. Odd.

But so much empty verbiage is flung at us these days, babble that comes out of the most superficial attempt at thinking and has no real target—no audience, no action to be taken. Look at anything that reeks of that emptiest of genres, the “Strategic Plan.” You can recognize it by all the -izes: prioritize, maximize, actualize, conceptualize, organize, strengthenize.

(Okay, okay—I made that last one up. I’ve never seen “strengthenize”—yet.) But these are signs that what the language is suggesting exists only in some kind of Platonic, intellectual heaven where all good strategic plans go when they die. The Strategic Plan is an art form that was born dead. Like MTV. It started out as kind of a commercial for something real: “This is what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.” But then it realized it had no need for its parent reality and it abandoned empirical reality as pretty much beside the point.

So much verbiage is flung at us that this bears repeating: writing is the act of ensuring that readers know and understand what we are talking about. Just as the concept of aim is meaningless without a target, the concepts of clarity and precision are meaningless unless they occur in the minds of our readers.

For the skillful archer, the target draws the arrow from the bow.

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