By David Flin
We’ve all done it. We’ve all read books where the author goes out of their way to show off how clever they are, how extensive their vocabulary is, and how complicated they can make sentence structures. The intention is to make the reader appreciate how brilliant the author is by making the reader work hard to understand. Writing impressively constructed sentences is the mark of a good writer, correct?
Actually, no. It’s about as far from correct as it is possible to get. The purpose of writing is to communicate with the intended readership. If the intended reader finds it difficult to read and understand, it is bad writing. The reader might be impressed by the writing, but if they haven’t understood it, it is bad writing, and the person at fault is never the reader, but the writer.
If there is a failure of communication, the writer is at fault, every single time. It doesn’t matter what people who aren’t part of the intended readership think; the intended readership is all that matters. If I write: “The upgraded gas turbine has maintenance intervals of 32,000 hours, an increase up from 24,000 hours of the previous model,” that would be poor writing for this blog, because very few people reading would have the slightest idea what the significance was. It would be fine for the readership it was intended for, because the magazine in question was Gas Turbine World.
Aim for the target readership. No-one else matters. The easier the reader finds it to understand the words, the more they will understand the content of the work.
Academics, and especially would-be academics, are the worst offenders. I speak as one who has had to edit the writings of academics, and I shall carry the scars to my grave.
I’ll give two examples: one an example of good writing, one an example of bad.
The first is taken from Military Blunders, by Saul David. This passage is discussing the Battle of Antietam (1862) in the American Civil War.
Lee’s plan to give battle near Sharpsburg along the Antietam Creek was a calculated risk. He was heavily outnumbered and if defeated his retreating army would be seriously impeded by the Potomac River. On the other hand, the South needed battlefield success in Maryland to discourage the North and impress European governments. It was for political reasons, therefore, that he could not return to Virginia without a tactical victory.
This is an excellent piece of writing. It is clear, unambiguous, and the author’s meaning is easily understood. He may be right or wrong, but the reader knows exactly what he is trying to say.
The second example is taken from British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One, by John Laffin. This passage is referencing Dewar and Boraston’s work on Sir Douglas Haig.
In his final dispatch, the Commander-in-Chief, under the heading of ‘A Single Great Britain’, shows in a few passages how his own series of victories between the Battle of Amiens, August 8-13, 1918 and the Battle of the Sambre, November 1-11, 1918, were made possible and were gradually led up to by the wearing down campaign of the previous years, and it is fortifying for those among us who never wavered in the conviction that costly offensives in 1916 and 1917 were necessary before the immense military power of Germany could be brought down in 1918 to have the truth set forward in perfectly simple terms through a master-mind in war; through the strategist who wrought the weapon and dealt the stroke.
That single sentence needs to be taken out and shot. It is 122 words of meandering sub-clauses. I challenge anyone reading it to reach the end of it to recall how it started. What is more, it’s trying to convey a single, simple point: “We needed to kill a lot of Germans before we could make a breakthrough.” Whether it is true or not doesn’t matter. The example puts up a smokescreen of words, making it hard to debate whether it is correct or not.
Writing is all about clear communication to the intended readership. Great writing is invisible to the reader. They don’t need to think about understanding the meaning, and all their attention is on the message. It doesn’t matter whether it is fiction or non-fiction you are writing; the purpose of writing is to convey the message, and not distract the reader with how the message is put together.
How do you do this? Like many things, it’s quite hard to make it look easy. One piece of advice that I’ve given before, and I’ll doubtless give again is: “When you’ve written something, read it out loud.” If it sounds odd, it probably is odd. If you find yourself running out of breath, either your sentence is too long, or you should see a doctor.
“My orders are clear. So are my fields of fire.” Taken from real-life, and said in my hearing. It’s a wonderful example of economy of words to convey a single clear message, along with a thumbnail characterisation of the speaker.
Always have the intended readership in mind. If you’re writing for university-educated people with a knowledge of politics, you can use words like extradition without feeling the need to explain it. If you’re writing for seven-year-old children, extradition isn’t a word you should be using.
Don’t overload a sentence with clauses and ideas. As you can see from the second example I quote, any meaning gets lost and trapped within a long, meandering sentence. I'll give a fictional example: “Lloyd disliked Fuller-Smith, who was the son of Lord Lindisfarne, who had been employed thirty years before by the now-discredited Model Parliament in the campaign against the Eurarabian Confederation, which was formed following a brief and bloody coup against Prince Qajar.” I defy anyone reading that to have a clue what that sentence actually means without careful study.
It can be rewritten: “Lloyd disliked Fuller, the son of Lord Lindisfarne.” The rest is detail that can be filled in later as required. If we’re writing an academic study, and all the detail is needed at this point, then break up the points.
For example: “Thirty years ago, the Eurarabian Confederation overthrew Prince Qajar in a brief and bloody coup. Straightaway, the now discredited Model Parliament launched a campaign, led by Lord Lindisfarne, against the Confederation. Lord Lindisfarne’s son, Fuller, has since risen in prominence, but Lloyd dislikes Fuller.”
Another piece of advice. The passive voice is to be avoided. Academics love the passive voice, but it is dull, dull, dull. It detracts from any message. Contrast: “The role of the Royal Navy is now little more than to Show the Flag,” with: “About the only role retained by the Royal Navy is to see that the Flag is Shown.”
Put the important clause first in a sentence. For example:
“John, who had a boiled egg for breakfast, was able to use the energy to do well in the exam.” “John did well in the exam because the boiled egg he had for breakfast gave him energy.”
The important information is that John did well in the exam. The supporting information is why he did well. The important bit comes first.
Read it out loud. I can’t say it often enough. If it doesn’t sound right, then it almost certainly right. It’s the message that is important, not the means of conveying the message.
I’ll finish with a piece taken from Six Weeks, by John Lewis-Stempell. The book is about junior officers in the British Army in WWI, and he is discussing the various attitudes towards wounds and hospitalisation. One of the great fears these young men had was that of emasculation. It’s not a piece for the faint of heart. It’s told very simply, and the message it conveys is powerful.
A captain in a Midlands regiment woke up at a Casualty Clearing Station as a eunuch. Through the lazy haze of morphine, he managed to scribble a farewell to his fiancée. He wrote that as he was no longer a man, he could not marry her, and therefore life had no meaning. He begged quietly for a revolver. Over and over, he begged. Eventually, a Fusilier officer nearby pressed his Webley into the captain’s hand, and helped guide the revolver into his mouth. With every atom of concentration, the 26-year-old captain pulled the trigger, and blew the back of his head into the stretcher.
The devastating impact of that description is enhanced by clear, straightforward words. Writing is a means of communication, not a mechanism by which the author shows off. Let the reader see the message, not the medium.