Baffled but overawed, we might now and then browse the work of some renowned contemporary philosopher or social theorist (plug in a name here) and, while finding their paragraphs impenetrable, nonetheless feel obliged to assume a great mind is spawning truly original ideas way over our humble, ill-educated heads. But we might also look down at those words and wonder….does this guy, this woman, this “great mind” really need to be so obscure? Can’t obfuscation hide pretention? I maintain that the superficial — and what I call “super feces” — often lie among the thickest patch of verbal weeds.
In other words, it could be that you’re reading a big load of crap.
In The Elements of Style, Shrunk and White’s slim, well-thumbed and endlessly famous handbook on verbal clarity, there is a chapter on The Elementary Principle of Composition. George Orwell is summoned to provide an example of strong writing being “deprived of its vigor.” Orwell took a passage from the Bible, where you find plenty of strong writing, and, in Strunk and White’s words, “drained it of its blood.”
So here’s the bloodless example:
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must inevitably be taken into account.
What is missing, besides blood, is any concrete language. And now, from the King James Version of Ecclesiastes, courtesy of George Orwell, comes the Biblical verse that untangles that coil of verbiage and renders it into comprehensible, rhapsodic, very concrete verse for the ages.
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Clear? Yes, in a biblical way. Concrete? Solid!
You understand this, though it is essentially poetry, in a way you could never understand the other. The repetition seems to dance the words into your head. (Hey! Greg! Be “concrete” if you must, but must you keep messing with metaphors? Before you know it, you’ll be mixing metaphors like someone mixing a batch of concrete. There! Another metaphor! This, too, can be the enemy of clarity.)
Anyway, class, avoid the verbal “super feces” that lay hidden among the verbal weeds like cow plop. Yuk! (Does that make any sense? Metaphorical or other?)
Right about now, George Orwell can be heard groaning.
To be clear, the best writing is clear writing. Clear? Class dismissed.