Baroque, I’ve been called. By an ex-girlfriend just before she became ex, I admit, but the taunt stuck. There’s truth in it. I can be long-winded, and over-complicate issues. It wasn’t a straightforward relationship either, but that’s another story.
Strunk and White‘s Rule 14 is avoid fancy prose. George Orwell, no less, tells us never use a long word where a short one will do. The message is clear. Keep it simple and straightforward.
In general I agree with this. In my non-fiction writing, drafting public reports and policy advice for example, I aim for clear writing. I strike out the passive voice, the circumlocution, the unnecessary verbiage and thickets of historical detail. In fiction, too, I work for clarity. I want my story to stay with you long after you’ve turned away. If my language kicks you off the page, you will forget me.
What’s wrong with these laudable ambitions, touted in writing classes everywhere?
Poverty of language, failure of ambition for a start. I’m lucky to be a native English speaker (though our linguistic arrogance is annoying). English is amazing. Flexible, adaptable, wearing its geography on its sleeve, encouraging subtle cadence and inflection. And we are surrounded by other languages from which we can borrow words that enlighten and expand our vision. English does it all the time.
One of my wonderful beta readers challenged my use of the word ablutions, instead of wash. In that specific spot in the text, she was right, but I’ve thought a lot about it. Ablutions gives us the overtone of ritual. The word has echoes of prayer, places the character in an environment where faith matters. That’s valuable. Those echoes, that precision, are available to us when we find the word in our language that captures all that we want our reader to understand.
I’m also an enemy of assuming my readers are stupid. (I hate the phrase dumbing down, which is lazy and offensive.) We are surrounded by encouragement as readers, as citizens, as friends and lovers, to dismiss anything complicated. Heaven forbid that our bread and circuses should require us to use our heads. I write about big ideas, and I want you to be interested in them too.
Those big ideas don’t happen from nowhere. I’m not a believer in the importance of an outmoded classical education. I didn’t have one. I do think, though, that we are placed within a particular historical context, and the world we live in, the worlds we create, are children of that context. The theory of evolution, the ready availability of contraception, the choking freedom of the internal combustion engine are fundamental to who we are. If they’re not in your story, in your character’s head, we need to know why. Maybe she lives in a poor country where contraception is impossible to get. Perhaps the oil ran out.
My point is not only about continuity, the suspension of disbelief. I’m also talking about some of the more embedded notions that our writing may challenge. Punishment is retributive; progressive liberalism is inevitable; economic growth is always desirable. Keeping it simple may sometimes just be laziness.
Rule 14 does not stop with the often-quoted advice to use a ten-cent word. The gurus tell us to use our ears. Gut is not interchangeable with intestine, and your ear will guide you to the best one for your writing. Orwell’s sixth rule is often ignored, yet he says Break any of [his five] rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. I add my encouragement to write with precision and self-awareness.