Writing Like Porridge

” . . . [W]riting and thinking are, if not the same thing, quite inseparable. If you write like porridge you will think like it, and the other way around.”

So says Don Watson in his book Gobbledygook: How Clichés, Sludge and Management-Speak are Strangling our Public Language.

I haven’t read the whole book. I intended to, but after a while I resorted to skimming and skipping. The subject of language and its use and misuse fascinates me. This particular treatment of the subject did not fascinate me, at least not all the way through. I tired of the political emphasis and the constant (intentional) interspersing of clichés and management-speak throughout the text. That being said, Gobbledygook did contain some good advice and and also make some extremely important points.

One idea Watson underscores is the connection between language and thought.

“Such wisdom as we have, we express in language, and in language we also seek wisdom. An impoverished languages must perforce accompany impoverished thought. As Orwell said: ‘It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts.'”

Watson would say that if we’re not expressing ourselves clearly, either we’re not thinking, we’re unable to express what we are thinking, or we’re intentionally trying to express something other than what we’re actually thinking, Porridge is all very well as porridge, but it’s downright nasty if it’s a description of our writing skills, never mind our thinking ones. Would you like to know what porridge looks like in written form? Here’s a beautiful example Watson cites:

“These pressures include substantially reduced funding, unfavourable demographic trends, and impending initiatives which, along with reform, may present threats. Added to these pressures is the desire for the universities to be more integrated in the overall economic development strategies of the State.”

Now compare it with this revised version:

“The universities are under pressure. They have lost funding and they are losing people. They struggle to keep up with the demands of reforming governments and a modern economy. True, changes have been made: they share resources and research and look for other ways to cooperate. But they must do more than this.”

Which paragraph is easier to understand? If you had to read twenty pages’ worth of one style of paragraph, which one would you choose? Why?

The second paragraph, as Watson admits, is “hardly poetry”, but at least, he says it’s “clearer” and he’s quite right. We know what the writer is trying to say, and if we could stick with him for a while longer if we had to. A couple of pages like the first paragraph would either make your brain hurt with the effort to follow it, or else make your brain and eyes disengage as you sink into an approximation of reading that fails to bring much understanding with it.

Not everyone can write with beauty, humour, or power. We’re not all Austens or Lewises or even Wodehouses and we don’t have to be (kind of a shame, though). But I do think that we should try to communicate our thoughts clearly, to understand the basics of how language works and use those basics well. And if our porridge-writing is caused by porridge-thinking, that will need to be attended to also.

If poor writing and shallow thinking are–I really can’t use a cliché like “vicious circle” in this post, now can I?–if poor writing and shallow thinking both gorge on each other, which does one try to eliminate first? Should I try to think more clearly in the hope of writing more clearly, or the other way around?

For me–and I’ve read others who’ve said the same–writing doesn’t just express my thoughts, but it can actually be a part of my thinking process, and so aiming for clarity in writing makes me have to think harder and (I hope) better. It’s harder than you might think. For me, anyway. I can feel the brain strain when I edit a post like this one!

What does it mean to write with clarity? This isn’t original with me, nor is it rocket science, but it means to write something your reader can easily understand, going on nothing but the words in front of him. It means the writer getting the reader to think what the writer wants him to think. Writers know what they mean when they write because they know all the other thoughts and half thoughts and feelings that never become a written part of the finished product but that helped to shape it all the same. Their readers don’t have that. C S Lewis once said that “[t]he reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him. I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the reader will most certainly go into it.”

So don’t assume your reader knows anything about your thoughts other than as they are expressed in the words you put on paper. And if you think your thoughts make perfect sense, perhaps ask someone else to read them and give you their honest feedback. It can be a humbling experience, but it will help you to write more clearly. Know the basics of grammar and punctuation. Try to choose your words precisely. We generally only chip off bits of the gigantic iceberg that is the English language. What do I mean by a word like “interesting” anyway? Can I be more specific? Probably. If I can’t, do I need to work on improving my vocabulary?

Wow. This is my longest post ever. And there is much more that could be said–not just about writing with clarity, but then about that zing that turns average writing into truly good writing.

I’m hardly writing as an expert here (in case you hadn’t figured that out already!) I could take a red pen to this post–and to all my posts–if I really wanted to, and I have no doubt that others could too. Porridge thinking and porridge writing? I’ll wave my hand and admit my guilt. And if the judge lets me off, I’ll try to work on my culinary skills.

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