To be fair to us all, let’s open with this disclaimer: this rant is going to be about as unstructured as they come… unplanned aside from the fact that this rage has been welling up in me for a while. On the other hand, I suppose that’s why I’m calling this a rant and not an essay or a post or a rumination or something else, in which case my initial sentence was both unnecessary and redundant. Rats!
At various points in my life, I have been asked to write on behalf of other people and I constantly come up against the criticism that my writing is “too formal” and that I should be more “casual,” or “familiar,” or “friendly” in what I write. And, sure, when I’m writing for a professional or academic audience, I sometimes can’t quite control how elevated my register becomes. I blog and allow myself occasionally to have unbridled ranting sessions precisely so that I don’t forget what it’s like to just write in my own voice as the sentences form in my brain… more or less (I did just go back and insert/excise a few words from this sentence tee hee). I appreciate when people call me out for writing in a way that seems artificial because above all I want my writing to be authentic, but not at the cost of style.
Here’s my problem. When people edit my work to be “less formal” that often means less correct or less precise. I don’t want to alienate readers by using unnecessarily elevated vocabulary or opaque syntax (that’s not good writing, anyway), but I don’t want to forgo incisive language just because “make” seems more casual than “establish.” Maybe that’s not the best example. One of the first style rules I ever learned was about revision: if you can find a way to say it in fewer words or fewer syllables, do it! Don’t waste time with clunky, pedantic language just to make yourself sound smarter; DO take the time to write with force and precision. Sometimes that means using more specific, slightly less run-of-the-mill words.
I realize now that I’m running the risk of sounding elitist or self-aggrandizing. I don’t think writing should be exclusive, and I know I’m not the best writer there ever was, but words are what I have. They’re the tools I feel most comfortable working with, so I struggle when people are willing to sacrifice clarity for the sake of sounding off-the-cuff. I’m really not talking about a literary vocabulary, here; I’m talking about understanding the rules of written English and using them to write clearly (or as clearly as a person can when they like parentheses and asides as much as I do). Knowing how to write doesn’t make me (or you!) a more articulate or intelligent person than the next guy, it just means that you’ve got a knack for structure (and also were probably lucky enough to have an awesome English teacher at some point). Spoken and written language aren’t the same; they follow different rules, so “speak-writing” can often lead to ambiguous communication. Gestures, intonation, and suggestive trailing off disappear, and we need to replace them with syntax, diction, and punctuation.
Welp, now that I’m pretty sure that I have definitively established myself as a huge asshole, I’ll just get to what I think I’ve been trying to say… or what I want to say… or something. Clear writing levels the playing field; in an ideal world, writing that exists in any generally accessible forum makes its content comprehensible to a broad reading public without “dumbing it down.” Words and sentences can be precise without being academic or exclusive; they can be comprehensible without being simplified. Heck, oversimplification can often breed sentences so vague that they might as well be written in academese. Without context, the sentence “It is over there” probably means as little to you as Lacan’s assertion that “The fact is that the total form of the body by which the subject anticipates in a mirage the maturation of his power is given to him only as Gestalt, that is to say in an exteriority in which this form is certainly more constituent than constituted, but in which it appears to him above all in a contrasting size (un relief de stature) that fixes it and in a symmetry that inverts it, in contrast with the turbulent movements that the subject feels are animating him.”
Good writing enables learning, and I guess I don’t really need to prove that, but sometimes I feel like I do. And it is almost definitely incredibly pretentious to say that I know what good writing is (look at all them adverbz!), but we all know what it is, because we can all tell when writing is easy to understand and when it’s not.
So there. I’m really over the “too formal” criticism because it implies that there’s no place for careful writing anymore. But there is. Because there has to be. And we take it for granted.