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Monday
Sep172007

Writing Well, Part 2: Clear Thinking, Clear Writing

Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.
–Strunk and White, The Elements of Style

I’ve found Strunk and White’s quote above to be exactly right. When I sit down to write about an idea I have clear in my head, I often find that it was not so clear after all. The act of putting it into writing—making it tangible—often reveals facets of the idea I hadn’t thought about. Clear writing only comes when your thinking is clear, and the process of trying to write clearly can clear up your thinking. The process of writing sloppily leaves your thinking muddled.

George Orwell was concerned with the link between sloppy writing and sloppy thinking. In his time, he witnessed political decisions so bad that they could only be explained with vague, deceptive, muddled language. Unfortunately, this poor language fit right in with the sorry state of English in general. It’s remarkable how applicable Orwell’s frustrations are to our own time.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

I have too much respect for Feynman to give him a jokey picture.The physicist Richard Feynman is one of my favorite thinkers, so it is no surprise that the quality of his writing is excellent. He was intellectually curious, a troublemaker, and acutely aware of the link between clear thinking and clear language. I’ll share with you a couple of his anecdotes from his time at Princeton when he visited the philosophy students and the biology students in an effort to see what the world looked like outside of the physics department.
Feynman sat in on a philosophy seminar where the graduate students were discussing a book called Process and Reality by Whitehead. They talked a great deal about the term “essential object” and Feynman took it as a technical term he didn’t know the definition of. Then the professor leading the seminar asked Feynman if he thought an electron is an essential object. Feynman admitted that he didn’t even read the book (he was just sitting in on this one seminar) but said he’d try to answer anyway if someone could answer for him whether a brick is an essential object.

Feynman’s plan was to then bring up the question of whether the inside of a brick is an essential object. We can’t actually see the inside of a brick; when we break a brick open we create new surfaces, but we believe the inside of the brick is still underneath those surfaces. His point was that an electron isn’t so much a concrete thing like a brick, but more of a concept like the “inside of a brick” that helps us understand the world.

Physicist Richard Feynman casts a powerful spell, giving all nearby creatures a -3 penaltyFeynman didn’t get to make his point. One student said, “A brick as an individual, specific brick. That is what Whitehead meant by an essential object.” Another man said, “No, it isn’t the individual brick that is an essential object; it’s the general character that all bricks have in common—their ‘brickness’—that is the essential object.” Yet another man said, “No, it’s not in the bricks themselves. ‘Essential object’ means the idea in the mind that you get when you think of bricks.”

Feynman couldn’t believe that these philosophers had spent so much time talking about this subject without asking whether something as simple as a brick is an essential object, much less an electron. It’s a safe guess that any papers they would have written about this subject would turn out bloated, fluffy, and vague. You can only write vigorously and concisely if you know exactly what you’re talking about.

After the philosophy incident, Feynman took a biology class for the hell of it, promising he would do all the assignments like any other student, even though he was already a renowned professor of physics. The students laughed hysterically at one of his biology presentations when he talked about “blastospheres” instead of “blastomeres” or some other such thing.

His next presentation was about the nerve impulses in cats. The research paper he was reading often mentioned specific muscles and nerves in the cat, but Feynman had no idea where any of these things were located relative to each other. He then went to the biology library and asked for a map of the cat. “A map of the cat, sir?” the librarian asked, horrified. “You mean a zoological chart!

Feynman started his presentation to the graduate biology students by drawing an outline of the cat on the board and labeling various muscles. The students interrupted him saying, “We know all that!” Feynman replied, “Oh you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you’ve had four years of biology.” He said they wasted all their time memorizing stuff like that when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.

A map of the cat.While the philosophy students hadn’t defined their language well enough to have clear ideas, the biology students were so caught up in language and jargon that they had not spent enough time going beneath the surface. Language is a tool, but it is also a barrier between people and ideas. Using vague language is like trying to see those ideas through a dirty lens. But spending all your time polishing the lens (quibbling over jargon rather than the underlying concepts) is no good either. You have to actually look through the lens of language at the ideas underneath.

While we look down on muddy writers because they only convey muddy thoughts, there is another, greater enemy. The most dangerous type of writing comes from clear-thinkers who write vaguely to deliberately deceive you. (Note: only deliberately split an infinitive if you really mean it.)

Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
–George Orwell
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

‘While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.’

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.

It’s ironic that Orwell uses the image of soft snow falling upon the facts to blur them when the name of the current US Press Secretary (as of this writing) is Tony Snow. His job is almost entirely based on deception. I hate to subject you to even a snippet of his language because reading it triggers the sensation of sinking into quicksand, but you’ll have to suffer through it anyway. This is a perfect example of inflated language that is intentionally vague and confusing, designed to anesthetize a portion of your brain.

Question: Tony, a couple of minutes ago, you said one of the goals in Iraq is to prevent civil war. Can you take a minute and give us the definition that the President is working with? Because he continues to say it’s not at that state yet; lots of analysts do say it’s at that state. What’s the threshold that the administration is working with –

SNOW: I think the general notion is a civil war is when you have people who use the American Civil War or other civil wars as an example, where people break up into clearly identifiable feuding sides clashing for supremacy within [the land].

[...]

SNOW: At this point, you do have a lot of different forces that are trying to put pressure on the government and trying to undermine it. But it’s not clear that they are operating as a unified force. You don’t have a clearly identifiable leader. And so in this particular case, no.

What you do have is a number of different groups – you know, they’ve been described in some cases as rejectionists, in others as terrorists. In many cases, they are not groups that would naturally get along, either, but they severally and together pose a threat to the government.

I guess someone had to defend the atrocities of the Bush administration with deceptive language. Might as well have been this guy.In case you fell asleep somewhere during that quote, make sure you got the part at the end about how rejectionists and terrorists “severally and together pose a threat to the government.” Tony Snow can’t really tell you the truth—that there is a civil war in Iraq—because that’s not politically good for him to say. He’s forced to play the exact kind of word games that Orwell was trying to unmask.

You can write plainly and clearly, if only you honestly try. Even Tony Snow could, if he had any incentive to. Clear writing is not a skill reserved for professional writers, but it is reserved for those who have their thoughts in order in the first place and for those who aren’t trying to hide the truth. As Strunk and White pointed out, if you don’t have your thoughts in order, attempting to write them down is a good way to help you straighten them out. But if your problem is that you need to hide the truth, then you’re certainly not coming to me for writing tips.

If you’d like a reading assignment, I recommend anything by Richard Feynman. As a physicist, he spent most of his time thinking about how the world works, and was always battling against layers of language. Sometimes it was jargon from other fields, sometimes it was trying to communicate with colleagues who spoke Japanese or Spanish, sometimes it was inflated political language trying to hide the truth. But Feynman was ever-vigilant, cutting through these language barriers so he could understand what the underlying idea really was. Once you truly understand something—and only then—you can explain it clearly to others, leaving out all unnecessary words.

You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird... So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
–Richard Feynman

--Sirlin

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Reader Comments (2)

The physicist Richard Feynman is one of my favorite thinkers, so it is no surprise that the quality of his writing is excellent.

A minor point, but Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? weren't written by him but transcribed from conversations. Some of his other books were transcribed from lecture recordings.

Still, that doesn't affect the main point: he got his ideas across wonderfully clearly.


While we look down on muddy writers because they only convey muddy thoughts, there is another, greater enemy. The most dangerous type of writing comes from clear-thinkers who write vaguely to deliberately deceive you.

Have you read Steven Poole's book Unspeak? (You might have come across his videogame writing in the book Trigger Happy and his column in Edge.) It takes its cue (uh-oh, a cliché!) from Orwell and discusses precisely this subject.

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNick R

A great article, the anecdote from Richard Feynman really nailed what I have been trying to come to terms with lately about writing. I have been guilty of vague, overly complicated writing to hide the fact that I didn't know what I was talking about. Its been easy to fall into this when discussing concepts that aren't well defined in my head and in other situations I use jargon to highlight that I do know what i'm talking about.

It's time to define ideas in my head and write them in a way that anyone can understand. Thats what I have taken from this. Thank you.

July 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZiggyD

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