Writing with Clarity Is Overrated
In his famous textbook, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams opens by saying, “This book rests on two beliefs: it is good to write clearly, and anyone can” (2). You might have thought, given the title of the book, that Williams’ founding beliefs would be something more like it is good to write clearly, and it is good to write gracefully. Of course, that’s not where Williams takes us: through and through, his book is a paean to clarity. You write well when you write clearly. You write gracefully when you write clearly. You write ethically when you write clearly. Measure writing by its clarity, by, that is, its factual, informational transparency. Clarity, for Williams, has to do with how easily a text offers up its propositional content, its true and false statements. Thus, a sentence like I have thought about it and decided that you should leave is clearer than Recent considerations have led to my conclusion that your departure would be for the best because the first more straightforwardly says what the speaker means to say—I’ve decided that you should go. (Though we might wonder about how the the second version reveals things about the rhetorical situation that the first obscures.)
Williams is part of long tradition of clarity-first writing pundits. Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, stated, “let the virtue of style be defined as ‘to be clear’” (197), and in the centuries since, the edict to be clear has remained in force, whether in Sprat’s plea for a spare, scientific English or Orwell’s praise of prose that is as a window pane. Regardless of the spokesperson, the prevailing voice of those who champion “good writing” always declare the cause of clarity.
Now, in challenging clarity, I should be clear that I am not suggesting that we would be better off if writers obfuscated more. Rather, I hope to suggest that there is more going on in writing (and any use of language) than the transmission of information. When we make clarity our summum bonum, we reduce writing to a narrowly defined transaction, stripping away whole dimensions of human nuance.
To address the matter of clarity, I turn to Kenneth Burke’s distinction between semantic and poetic ideals. The semantic ideal, he explains, works like a mailing address—it identifies a single referent and points you directly to it. In a world of the semantic ideal, everything you could talk about would have a word that refers just to that thing, without any hint of evaluative weight. Dog would refer to an animal known as dog without any echoes, for example, of the idea that you could call someone you dislike by the same word. The semantic ideal trades in pure information. The poetic ideal, however, isn’t so precious (my word) about informational fidelity. Rather than avoid the drama of real life, the poetic ideal plunges in headfirst, preferring to uncover meaning in the “heaping up” of all the emotional factors that surround us and the symbols we use. Per the poetic ideal, we need not shy away from calling someone a dog, but we must also recognize that, by doing so, we are committing to an attitude of seeing that person as a dog. Thus, because the poetic ideal not only conveys information but also commits the speaker to an attitude, scientific objectivity is impossible, even while motives and attitudes are clarified.
Burke recognizes that the semantic ideal is limited in a few key ways. First, Burke suggests that the value of the semantic ideal is “promissory”—useful only in the future and not the present. Someone’s mailing address is useful only in the future act of sending a letter, not in the present moment of learning much about that person. Similarly, pure information is only useful (obviously) when you use it, not when you hear it. Additionally, Burke notes, “Information is quite often ‘semantically’ sound. But it is rarely resonant” (160). When was the last time you have been inspired, distressed, or affronted while writing down a mailing address or calling a bird a bird? The semantic ideal tells us things that are true, giving us information we may be able to use later, but that is all it can do.
The poetic ideal, by contrast, has value now. If you call someone a dog, I not only have the future value of knowing who you’re talking about, but I have the present value of knowing how you feel about them at this precise moment. When you tell me their address, you give me only information. When you call them a dog, you give me a whole impression of past experience and present attitude. Calling someone a dog is less informationally clear (I cannot address an envelop to dog)—but oh so revelatory.
When we adopt a scientistic program of stripping language of its ambiguity, attitude, and mercurial mutability for the sake of clarity, we foreground the semantic ideal, suggesting that we prefer factual information to the richness of experience. We trade the whole truth for just the facts. As I write, I can hear people saying Yes, exactly—what we need is the facts. If people had accurate information, we would avoid so many of our problems.
Imagine a sign that hewed to the semantic ideal: Wet floor. Just the facts. It would probably save us from some bruised tailbones. But what if that sign, as is common, were willing to depart from informational objectivity, to inject some poetic attitude: Caution—wet floor. How many more bruises would we avoid with the non-informational word caution?
Of course, such a change does not really impede the clarity of the message. But what if we took a look at the clarifying value of unclear language in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Windhover.” Marked by unusual diction and tortuous syntax, Hopkins’ Windhover must surely be on many clarity-purists’ no-fly lists. If we really wanted it to be clear, it might read something like this:
This morning, I saw a windhover hovering in the air. It was really impressive, and I was amazed by it. That bird was really good at flying, and it made me think about how inspiring simple things like plowing a field can be.
Straightforward, clear, but no longer poetry. The version revised for clarity is, perhaps, easier to read, and it certainly delivers up its argument more readily. But how much have we lost in the name of clarity? We certainly don’t feel Hopkins’ rapture. We cannot, with him, marvel at “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!” We get the facts, but we lose the drama, the vitality, the fun, the beauty of it all. What good are the facts if nobody can remember them, much less want to read them?
As Burke points out, “The semantic style is bad style, except in those who violate its tenets” (159). Or, in St. Augustine’s words, “[T]he function of eloquence in teaching is not to make people like what was once offensive, or to make them do what they were loth to do, but to make clear what was hidden from them…. Learning has a lot in common with eating: to cater for the dislikes of the majority even nutrients essential to life must be made appetizing” (117). That is, the clarity-focused semantic ideal obscures as much as (if not more than) it reveals. In the same way that eating is more than the ingestion of nutrients, writing is more than the transmission of facts. A reduction of either activity to its transactional value cheapens it beyond recognition.
In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger writes, “It requires a very artificial and complicated frame of mind to ‘hear’ a ‘pure noise’” (207). We do not, in other words, hear bare acoustic data that we transform into birdsong. As much as we would fancy ourselves as fact-oriented and nobly objective, the fact is that we hear birds singing as they sing—and, as instantaneously, we have decided whether we like the sound or not. We learn and understand by experience, not by studying data tables. A focus on clarity has it all wrong, supposing that we run on data and can naturally and normally detach ourselves from the life we live.
Again, the clarity-minded would say that such detached objectivity is the goal: attitude and emotion obscure the facts. But, I'd respond, they can also clarify much more valuable things—the character of who we’re talking to, the nature of their positions, their quality of their attitudes towards us and others, and so forth. The semantic ideal and its focus on clarity thus become, as Kenneth Burke calls it, “anesthetic” for the way in which “the semantic ideal would aim at perception without feeling” (150).
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” Robert Frost wrote. By the semantic ideal and the strongest version of the obsession with clarity, tears are beside the point. But we stand to lose much through an exaggerated preference for informational clarity. Burke states, “Unawares, we have allowed ourselves to take it as the norm thereby confusing a norm with an average” (160). Clarity has become the preferred norm, especially where clarity means informational transparency. But we do not need to satisfy ourselves with such a narrow definition of clarity simply because it is the most commonly or vocally celebrated. Yes, it can be good to know the facts, but don’t we also stand to learn much when we can also see how our writers and speakers feel about those facts? Imagine, in other words, what we would be reading if Hopkins had grown up studying Williams’ limiting lessons on clarity and grace?
Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Translated by George A. Kennedy, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2007.
Augustine. On Christian Teaching. Translated by R.P.H. Green, Oxford University Press, 1997.
Burke, Kenneth. “Semantic and Poetic Meaning.” The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, Louisiana State University Press, 1941, pp. 138–67.
Frost, Robert. “The Figure a Poem Makes, by Robert Frost.” Poeticous. www.poeticous.com, https://www.poeticous.com/frost/the-figure-a-poem-makes. Accessed 17 Apr. 2020.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Harper Perennial, 1962.
Williams, Joseph M., and Joseph Bizup. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 12th ed., Pearson, 2017.