My Writing Close to the Earth class recently read “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell’s essay about the importance of clear, concrete language. Abstract, vague writing, he argues, makes it harder for us to think straight—or, worse, makes it seem unnecessary to think at all.
Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing, is that it is easy. It is easier–even quicker, once you have the habit–to say IN MY OPINION IT IS A NOT UNJUSTIFIABLE ASSUMPTION THAT than to say I THINK… By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.
If you’re not careful, you end up letting prefabricated phrases do the thinking for you. That’s one reason the writer has to be ever-vigilant. Writing doesn’t start with words. To the extent possible, you need to start with images, then go find the words that embody those images. Orwell continues:
In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing, you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning.
A participant in an earlier instance of Writing Close to the Earth, having just finished the Orwell essay, asked if I had practices that help me stay concrete in my writing. That was an interesting question to think through. I came up with four guidelines, all of which grow out of the principle that almost every idea you have ever had came to you first in the form of sensory experience. Here are those four guidelines:
Guideline 1: Back up from the idea and consider what gave you that idea.
Everything you know started out as a sensory impression before it became an idea. You saw something, you heard something, you smelled something, and then the cerebral part of your brain formed an idea. So I try to back up one step and consider what sensory inputs gave me an idea or impression. Then, if possible, I show that sensory input rather than skipping straight to the idea. Here are a couple of easy examples:
- If you’re tempted to say “Consuela is angry,” back up and ask how you know Consuela is angry. Her posture? Her movements? Her expression? Her words? Her tone of voice?
- Consider the sentence “The house is on fire.” At first blush, it seems a concrete enough sentence. But consider how you know the house is on fire. There’s smoke. There are flames leaping higher than the roof. A smoke alarm is sounding. A fire truck is parked out front and firemen are dousing the place with water. Consider the possibility of including some of these sensory details.
I’m not suggesting that you include every detail you can think of every time you write a sentence. You might decide it’s best just to say “Consuela was angry” or “The house is on fire.” But I do suggest that you consider those details. Every time.
Guideline 2: Think in terms of experience rather than information.
Every time you write a sentence, you communicate information. But you also create an experience for the reader. Prose feels alive when it communicates information through sensory experience, which is the way information comes to us in real life. However, there are lots of ways to communicate information in prose without re-creating experience. Check out this sentence about a family that is rushing to get to school:
The day begins early with the intense effort to meet the school’s eight o’clock bell, twenty minutes up the highway.
Sure, that sentence provides the reader with the necessary information to figure out what is going on: early in the morning, a mother and some schoolchildren are busting it because they have to drive twenty minutes to get to school before the eight o’clock bell. But why should the reader have to figure that out?
The writer had an experience in mind. But then, for some reason, she translated that experience into an abstract phrase (“intense effort to meet…”). When you read that sentence, you are able to follow the story only by translating that abstraction back into the experience that the reader started with. It would have been much better for the writer to devote her energy to depicting the experience more vividly so that when you read it, it’s the sensing part of your brain that lights up, not the figuring-out part. As it is, the figuring-out part of your brain goes to work and communicates to the sensing part of your brain.
Guideline 3: Appeal to as many senses as possible.
When I start describing something, I run through all five senses to see if it makes sense to introduce a texture, a smell, or a taste in addition to the low-hanging fruit of sight and sound. You don’t want to strain to hit those other senses, but where it feels natural, it adds a lot when you appeal to one or two senses beyond sight and sound.
Guideline 4: Look for the story—even when you’re writing about ideas.
In Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams points out that, since we are wired for story, “no other form of prose can communicate large amounts of information so quickly and so persuasively.” This may seem counterintuitive, since we have grown accustomed to the idea that informative writing and persuasive writing are distinct from narrative writing. But consider these two sample sentences from Williams:
The current estimate is of a 50% reduction in the introduction of new chemical products in the event that compliance with the Preliminary Manufacturing Notice becomes a requirement under proposed Federal legislation.
If Congress requires that the chemical industry comply with the Preliminary Manufacturing Notice, we estimate that the industry will introduce 50% fewer products.
These two sample sentences communicate the same information. In Sample A, the writer isn’t trying to tell a story. (Perhaps the writer would say he’s too busy being informative or persuasive to bother with story.) In Sample B, the same information is rendered in the form of a story. There are characters (Congress, the chemical industry), and those characters are doing things (requiring, complying, estimating, introducing). Which sample do you find more informative and persuasive?
If you run every sentence through these four guidelines, it will make a huge difference in the reader’s experience. When you write concrete, sensory prose, you remind the reader that you’re not just talking about things that happen between a person’s ears (whether the writer’s ears or the reader’s ears). You’re talking about things that exist in the world where we live and move and have our being.