Last week I finished reading The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear, by Ralph Keyes. As you can guess from the title, Keyes talks a lot about fear.
Fear, he suggests, leads to turgid, jargon-fllled, just-plain-bad prose. In my previous post about the book, I pointed out that the reader’s fear shares some of the responsibility for bad writing; often, we don’t blow the whistle on obscure prose because we think everyone else but us understands it. Keyes takes this a little further; he suggests that bad prose is a shield, of sorts, for the writer.
Writing at all takes courage. Submitting work for publication takes something closer to bravado….There is an alternative. That alternative is writing for publication, but on such obscure terms that readers will feel too ignorant to criticize.
Then he picks on academics. A lot.
In a speech to the Association of American University Presses, Patricia Nelson Limerick, a history professor at the University of Colorado, tried to make sense of her colleagues’ preference for intellectual jive talk. Limerick thought it was a product of their timidity. “Professors are often shy, timid, and even fearful people,” she told her audience, “and under those circumstances, dull, difficult prose can function as a kind of protective camouflage.” From graduate school on, Limerick explained, career academics learn….[to] protect themselves by defending cautious ideas with insider words, complicated syntax, and qualifying phrases such as “as case might be made” and “one could argue that.”
….The rough-draft quality of impenetrable writing can soothe authors’ nerves. If you haven’t given writing your best shot, and the results are criticized, you’re free to say, ‘Shoot, I could have done better if I’d taken the time. That’s just something I dashed off.” If you do write your best, and your best gets panned, there is no place to run and hide…
…[T]o write well, we must express ourselves clearly and risk rejection. We can finesse this risk by generating fog.
Turgidity and obfuscation, in other words, result primarily from fear.
I’m not sure about this. I tend to think that you write badly when you don’t know exactly what you’re saying, and don’t have the energy, or knowledge, or time to figure that out.
I see this kind of prose a lot. It strikes me as incomplete, not fearful.
Here’s an example: I spent most of this morning wrestling with about thirty-five years of post-medieval Ethiopian history which, if I’m lucky, will take up a sentence (or half a sentence) in The History of the Renaissance World (aka The Book That Is Already Three Times As Long As The Final Draft Will Be). Here’s a sample paragraph from a detailed history of Ethiopia after the fall of the Zagwe dynasty…
Of course, the two facets of domination discussed above may lead one, as the Oromo and Somali nationalists often argue, to invoke the colonial book. There is no doubt that the empire-building during the Menelik era was ‘violent and semi-colonial in nature.’ The power relations and the cultural stereotypes that characterize the relationship between the southern people and the northerners had some elements of colonial relations. A close look at the relationship between the conqueror and the conquered would, however, reveal that the subordination of the southern people to the Shewa Amhara cannot be posited as a colonial relation. Any analogy of the conquest of the south with European colonization belies the element of racism, which is an essential ingredient of European colonization that underlies the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. The policy of racism erects a barrier that rigidly separates the colonizer from the colonized. The relationship of the northerners with the people of the south lack this critical element. The divide between the dominant Amhara and the subordinate south is not rigid and it can be crossed by, for example, baptism into Christianity, speaking Amharic, or through marriage.
That’s the kind of prose I run across all the time. That doesn’t strike me as fear. It’s confusion and lack of time.
Try putting this passage into English. It would start (I think) something like this:
During the Menelik era, the empire-builders of the north treated the conquered south like…
And that’s as far as I get. “A colony” would be the next phrase. But what does the writer mean by this? There’s some specific behavior the writer has in mind. (What was it? Extermination? Land-stealing? Being snotty to the natives when you meet them in the street?)
Rather than telling us what that behavior is, the writer relies on a catch-phrase: colonization. I don’t think this is fear. I think it’s…well, I hesitate to use the word laziness (a very judgmental word, that).
OK, laziness. This passage would be clear and straightforward if the writer told us one or two specific “colonial” behaviors. To do that, the writer has to go find examples of this behavior. Real, specific, point-in-time occurrences. That takes time and effort. HUGE amounts of it.
And many pages of writing that won’t make it into the final draft.
Maybe my editor at Norton will see this blog post and send me some chocolate.
So I’m not sure I buy this particular explanation for obfuscation and turgidity. I don’t think that’s a result of fear. It’s an unwillingness, or an inability, to put in the time and work needed to be clear. If you doubt me, you try putting the last half of that paragraph into clear English. And you can’t use the code-word racism. You have to be specific.
What happens when you’re truly afraid? Ah…for that, you’ll have to stay tuned for the third and final blog entry about The Courage to Write.