I’m halfway through reading The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear, by Ralph Keyes.

For me, reading “how to write” books is more of a stalling technique than anything else. Generally speaking, I know perfectly well what I’m supposed to be doing with the current manuscript, I just don’t want to do it. Reading about writing is a relatively guilt-free way of putting off writing.

Usually, I get out of these books exactly what I deserve, which is nothing at all. But there have been a few exceptions (Thomas McCormack’s The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist stands out).

The Courage to Write is shaping up to be another exception. The first half of the book has forced me rethink my approach to writing, in a way I’ll tackle in a future blog post (sooner rather than later, I hope). But let me start with an excerpt from a later chapter–one about bad writing.

When the English writer Douglas Jerrold was sent an advance copy of Robert Browning’s poem Sordello, he read the poem eagerly, only to realize that it made no sense to him. “Oh, God, I am an idiot,” Jerrold told himself.

But the problem, Keyes points out, wasn’t actually Jerrold’s brain.

When members of the London Poetry Society asked Brwoning to interpret a particularly difficult passage of Sordello, he read it twice, frowned, then admitted, “When I wrote that, God and I knew what I meant, but now God alone knows.”

Douglas Jerrold’s reaction rang a highly personal bell. A month or so ago, I acted as outside reader for an article in a scholarly journal. If you’re not part of the academic community (not that there’s anything wrong with that, believe me), a scholarly journal is one in which the articles are “peer reviewed,” read by other academics to determine whether or not they fall within the broad boundaries of “not insane” as understood by other academics. It’s not a perfect system, but any peer-reviewed article has been read by at least three other scholars–probably from different disciplines–and has been passed as meeting the very basic requirements of scholarly discourse.

Which is to say, the article doesn’t scoff at anyone who disagrees with its theories as “personally involved” or “emotionally committed” to another interpretation. Or blame opposing theories on stupidity, malevolence, or sin. Or propose an interpretation that no one else under the sun has ever suggested before. (This is a bit of a tricky criteria, but generally, if an author proposes a theory that NO OTHER THINKER has ever come up with, and that EVERY OTHER AUTHORITY is in disagreement with…you should be cautious.)

More on those criteria later. The point here is that the scholarly article I reviewed did not violate any of these criteria. But I couldn’t READ the thing. It was so filled with jargon and five-syllable words that I couldn’t quite figure out what the author was getting at.

Finally, I wrote a report on the article that said, essentially, “I think the writer has some good ideas, worth developing. But I recommend against publishing it unless she can write it in English.”

This took more courage than I expected.

Now, I’m a fairly well-read person. I did, after all, manage to earn a Ph.D., which involved not just reading but also understanding–and being able to talk about–an extensive and fairly technical list of books.

But I had a hard time convincing myself that the problem with the article was with the prose, rather than with my brain.

So what does Ralph Keyes say about this?

Rather than risk sounding dense, readers, colleagues, and critics who can’t figure out what a writer is trying to say but think it sounds intelligent will typically resort to calling such work “daring,” “provocative,” or “complex.” An unholy alliance of writers and readers is at work here. Should anyone dare to raise questions about her hard-to-grasp writing, the author can brush these responses aside by saying that the person “missed the point”….This shifts the focus from the author’s writing to the reader’s intellect…

Bad writers can usually do better; they simply prefer not to. Most function in settings where plain talk not only isn’t encouraged, but is actively discouraged. Far from fostering clarity, the average bureaucracy, corporation, or educational institution rewards obscurity. It does this in ways that make sense only to members of that organization.

Keyes calls “hard-to-grasp writing”–filled with obfuscation and turgidity–neotribal prose, “filled with words and phrases that are comprehensible only to insiders.”

Outsiders don’t get it. That’s the whole idea. Regular use of insider words confirms and reconfirms that one belongs to a group whose members do get it.

When you blow the whistle on bad writing, you not only risk sounding stupid (as Douglas Jerrold admitted), you also admit that you’re not part of the tribe.

Keyes ends his discussion of turgid writing with this anecdote:

According to Professor J. Scott Armstrong of the University of Pennsylvania, among academics, “obtuse writing…seems to yield higher prestige for the author.” Armstrong has conducted a number of studies to test this hypothesis. In one, he asked twenty management professors to identify the more prestigious of two unidentified journals presented to them. The more readable journal…was judged the least prestigious. In another experiment, Armstrong rewrote the same journal article in two different forms. One he rated confusing and convoluted, the other concise and clear. A panel of thirty-two professors agreed that the confusing version reported a higher level of research.

More from Keyes in a future post…

Showing 10 comments
  • Cheryl

    Good points, Susan. It reminded me of a quote from (I think) Alexander Pope in which he apologized that a letter was so long, but he didn’t have time to make it shorter. Writing is work, no matter how you do it; good writing is even more work, but when it’s done well, it’s worth the effort.

  • cathmom

    Sounds like a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes to me…

  • Linda

    Your entire post…can also be applied to oral communications.

    A number of years ago, my husband and I were involved in a discussion of the medical care that had been available in the small town in which we had grown up. My husband, a well respected neuroradiologist, confessed that he’d thought one of the local docs to be brilliant, because he (my husband) couldn’t understand a word the man said. My beloved went on to say, it was years later that he realized the problem wasn’t his understanding, it was the fact that Doc rarely said anything that actually made any sense. The man spoke as if English was a second language that he had never entirely mastered.

  • Janice in NJ

    Often my dad stops me and challenges, “Twenty-five words or less.”

    If I can’t explain myself to someone who hasn’t been looking over my shoulder during my study time, then I don’t really understand the topic myself.

    What is that video clip called – 10x or??? You know – the one where you start with the broadest picture of the universe and magnify the shot until you are staring at the smallest particle.

    If you can’t frame the shot to match your audience, then you truly understand neither the topic nor the audience around you.

    I have interacted with far too many geniuses who don’t have a clue about culture. Their voices end up being shuffled through a harmonizer so the world can hear the music.

    I have nothing to say about the voices that even the harmonizer can’t work with. How could I?


  • Kelly

    I’ve been reading too much “Goodnight Moon” and “Frog and Toad”–I had to look up turgidity. But your blog post was very accessible. 🙂 That’s why I love you, Susan–you keep me sharper than a board-book at this stage of my life.

  • Christine Guest

    I had my 7th grader read this after breakfast; he gave me the ‘grown ups are absurd,’ look in response. No wonder my physics professor waxed lyrical about (someone I forgot) who had the courage to write his thesis plainly and simply, even though it turned out to be very important science.

  • Karen

    At my dissertation defense, the outside committee member (from the history department) opened his remarks by asking, “What’s happened to the literature department? I could understand this!”

    But I did still have tremendous trouble with the 25-word condensation that Janice mentions. That’s a great idea, and so very much more difficult than it sounds. If you can do that, you’ve got another incredibly valuable skill.

  • Brenda

    Bad writing as a form of gnosticism. Heh.

  • GT

    Hi Susan,

    This post was confusing. Please rewrite. (Just kidding).

    Seriously though, this post made me reach for my beloved copy of Shrunk & White’s “Elements of Style.”

    Food for thought as I prepare to apply to grad. school within the next few years (Classics).

    Omit needless words!

    Great blog, btw.

  • Janice

    When I first starting teaching for a classical tutorial I had my high school students read William Zinnser’s book. He has a chapter on clutter and they responded very negatively to it. They did not like the idea of clear and concise and really never warmed up to Zinnser. I was more prepared the next year so after reading that chapter I pulled out Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style where they have the same message as well as Jacques Barzun’s Simple and Direct. That group didn’t have the same strong reactions and probably had better writers across the board.

    Having taught at the elementary level also, I think teachers there want more than your NVN sentence at the lower levels, Then In the middle grades it is often hard to get kids writing so they are told it has to be so many pages and what happens is we get rambling nonsense. By high school I think some students are lazy and think using a lot of big words will make up for lack of substance.

    Good writing is hard work and more is not often better.

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