20 August 2013

clarity vs. dumbing down

Last week I took a course for work on requirements gathering. We took all about how to elicit, verify, validate, and record requirements. One of the things emphasised (not surprisingly) was language usage. We were told to be clear, concise, consistent, concrete, and a whole lot of other adjectives that mostly started with the letter "c".

And for writing requirements documents, that makes perfect sense. But my brain working the way it does, I remembered something on a completely different topic while we were doing the pre-exam review on the last day.

You see, there's this documentary I like a lot, called In the Shadow of the Moon. They interview many (not all) of the Apollo astronauts, and show their responses intercut with footage from the various moon shots. I've never been able to catch it since, but the very first time I saw it, Michael Collins used a word which surprised me. It's not an unusual or rare word, but it is a polysyllabic one, and it's one that someone used to giving interviews would generally avoid. It's one of those words that falls into this weird hinterland of being only for "educated" people, even though pretty much anyone who finishes elementary school knows it.

That first time I saw the film and heard him say it, I wondered if he'd slipped up and forgotten the interview was for general public consumption. But then I realised something else was going on: he expected the audience to rise to the occasion. I'm convinced every phrase and sentence was being used to get the audience to turn their brains on, not just drift along. It was the opposite of the "dumbing down" we've become so used to in the last thirty years.

Just before the pre-exam shifted topics, I thought about the Lee Child novel I was reading. It was Killing Floor, the first in the Jack Reacher series, and it's remarkable for how Child uses vocabulary and sentence length. Here's the first paragraph as an example:
I was arrested in Eno's diner. At twelve o'clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.
The whole book is like that, a sort of See Spot Run with more plot and violence but no pictures. The writing makes Samuel Beckett's prose look purple.

I enjoyed the novel — after spending all day discussing the uses of UML diagrams in requirement verification, it was nice to treat myself to a little brain candy in the evening. But of course it got me to thinking some more about language.

Anyone with an opinion at all about writing will always tell you to choose simple, clear, and direct over complex, obscure, and tangential. I've always been a big supporter of this in writing: Hemingway over Foster Wallace. Beckett over Joyce. Camus over de Maupassant.

Simplicity can only go so far, though, and no farther. If it devolves too much, the writer has to make up for the lack of vocabulary with more words than necessary. I deliberately wrote "make up for" instead of "compensate" in that last sentence to illustrate.

I'm with the astronauts on this one: entice the reader to put their smartest selves forward, but do it in an accessible way. Who knows? It might give us all a chance to smarten up instead of dumbing down.

2 comments:

  1. Einstein is supposed to have said, "everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler." It's a line I have to walk all the time in my dayjob.

    Good stuff here, everyone should read it.

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  2. There are authors who can make the extremely simple extremely illuminating, and who can tap into profound projections with minimalist prose. Good on 'em. But most can't, and the majority of the fiction that satisfies my mind winds up being more ambitious in at least a few ways.

    I'm guessing I'm with the astronauts. Reach for the...

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