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Clear Communication: A NIH Health Literacy Initiative

Plain Language: Past Award Ceremonies

The Power of Language

Text of Michael Dirda's March 5, 2001, address at the NIH Plain Language Awards Ceremony

Can everyone hear me? If you can't, please signal wildly either now or at any time during my remarks. First off, let me thank the National Institutes of Health, and Dale Johnson in particular, for inviting me to address you for a few minutes this wintry afternoon. It is a great honor for me. I also want to express my pleasure that NIH and other branches of government have adopted a Plain Writing philosophy. It would be hard to imagine a more useful initiative.

My plan today is to talk briefly about the power of language, particularly clear and simple language, and then invite questions, rebut outraged comments, dodge brickbats. You know the drill.

What escapes us in daily life is clarity. Our days are blurry with unfocused desires, unresolved problems, imprecision and indecision. Should we change our jobs, divorce our husband or wife, place our nine year old in private school? We dither. We wait for… revelation, which never comes, and then we follow our guts or hearts or instincts… almost never our minds or reason… and finally act, then regret our choice, and then grow reconciled to it. We stumble along through life, in a fog of our own making.

But in writing any of us may find a temporary refuge, a stay from this uncertainty and confusion. For the writing of a diary entry or a progress report, a memoir or a memo, allows us to fabricate soul-cleansing order out of unruly chaos through the orderly progress of sentences. We take the jumble of an experience, or an experiment, and we create design, beauty, meaning. An aphorism, for instance, shows in miniature the pleasure possible from even a few well chosen words. Haven't we all felt certain vague truths that are only crystallized for us when a poet or philosopher enunciates them:

"Character is fate." (Heraclitus)

"In love there is always one who kisses and one who offers the cheek."

"Those who are slow to know suppose that slowness is the essence of knowledge." (Nietzsche)

"One can pretend to be serious, but one can't pretend to be witty." (Sacha Guitry)

"Life is a maze in which we take the wrong turning before we have learned to walk." (Cyril Connolly)

As scientists or administrators, you have all been taught the cardinal virtue of plain prose: If writing is communication, then only clear writing is effective communication. Consider a famous example: In George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" the author of 1984 translated a celebrated Biblical passage into modern English:

"Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."

Now, that's certainly plain enough, isn't it? And it certainly has a familiar ring for anyone who's ever worked in Washington. But still most of us slightly prefer our Ecclesiastes in the wording of the Authorized version:

"I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."

Allow me another, more personal example. Some 35 years ago I passed a summer working on a truck farm, spending mindless hour after hour picking cucumbers. For a while, to amuse myself I recited all the poetry I could remember; then sang all the pop songs I knew; and finally, out of desperation, started playing word games in the hot sun. My favorite of these was Periphrastic Translation--taking simple phrases and turning them into a kind Sesquipedalian gobbledygook. Sexual interdigitation was, for instance, holding hands. Perhaps you will recognize the following:

"While absorbing visual information from my kinescope a gentleman appears and informs me in the art of how much more completely reflective my body's upper wearing apparel could conceivably appear."

Can't you just hear the Rolling Stones belting out those lyrics? Of course, you can, though Mick actually preferred:

"While watching my TV a man comes on and tells me how white my shirts could be."

What is the cause for so much elaborate and preposterous language? Schopenhauer--not a guy I get to quote everyday--explained it a hundred and fifty years ago:

Some writers, he observed, "try to make the reader believe that their thoughts have gone much further and deeper than is really the case. They say what they have to say in long sentences that wind about in a forced and unnatural way; they coin new words and write prolix periods which go round and round the thought and wrap it in a sort of disguise. They tremble between the two separate aims of communicating what they want to say and of concealing it. Their object is to dress it up so that it may look learned or deep, in order to give people the impression that there is very much more in it than for the moment meets the eye.

" All in all, far better to keep in mind the advice of Winnie-the Pooh: "I am a bear of very little brain, and long words bother me."

Certainly one must beware of dumbing down or over-simplifying or over-systematizing when writing up complex matters. But if you have spent weeks, months, years of your life on a piece of research, don't you want the product of your time and thought presented cogently, with elegance and power?

Yes, power. The great Russian short story writer Isaac Babel once proclaimed:

"There is no iron which can enter the human heart with such stupefying effect, as a period placed at just the right moment."

In the past Latin and rhetoric were taught regularly in school, and an educated man was always expected to write clearly and persuasively, and at times to achieve beauty.

As a result, when I was growing up, it was fairly common to see people reading books like Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary. Back then, people were more interested in social advancement than spiritual growth, and it was widely believed that a command of English was a way up in the world. As a boy, I can remember listening to records of John Gielgud and Charles Laughton reading poetry and wanting to possess a speaking voice as distinctive as theirs. Any effort to improve diction, to acquire linguistic confidence, does pay some dividend. Education, after all, derives from intelligently focused effort. As Samuel Beckett once advised, in words that should be inscribed in classrooms: Fail. Fail again. Fail better.

Nowadays, though, our language swings between two poles: the ugly, rebarbative sounds of teenspeak, hip-hop lyrics, chatroom lingo and the abstruse, sometimes impenetrable jargons of science, literary theory, law and many other specialized fields. In both cases, ritual words act as markers, demonstrations of one's membership in the cult, but the audience for such dialects is restricted to the true believers, the in-crowd, fellow professionals.

Here is where Shaker plainness plays its part, maintaining a common discourse that we can all share, emulate and admire. Clarity, one might say, begins at home.

The writer Somerset Maugham observed that if one were to write perfectly one would write like Voltaire: The French ironist's prose is always lucid, terse, witty. In America the early masters of clean-lined simplicity are Thoreau and Emerson; in English literature, the classic models are

Dryden, Swift, Addison and Hazlitt. Samuel Johnson once asserted that whosoever would learn to write English should give his days and nights over to the study of Addison. Which is what Benjamin Franklin did, as he tells us in his autobiography. Such prose is conversational, sometimes rising toward aphorism, but always forceful, concise and harmonious. Nothing ever jars or seems stilted or merely rhetorical. As George Orwell, our modern master of this plain style, observed: Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.

Not that the creation of a courteous and attractive style doesn't require work. One has to listen carefully to the rhythm and tonality of sentences. Of his own easy-going style, Elmore Leonard once said, "if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." All well and good, of course, but in real life people are usually writing their reports under pressure, with deadlines looming, at the end of sorely trying days.

"Each venture," said T. S. Eliot,

"Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shoddy equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling."

Good writing, indeed, has never been easy except in the Red Smith sense. You may recall that the famous sportswriter noted that there was nothing to writing.

"All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."

More seriously, the would-be author, whether scientist or administrator, should bear in mind the character of someone like Florence Nightingale. I'm not joking. Here's how Lytton Strachey describes that eminent Victorian:

"It was not by gentle sweetness and self-abnegation that order was brought out of chaos; it was by strict method, by stern discipline, by rigid attention to detail, by ceaseless labor, by the fixed determination of an indomitable will."

Perhaps it might be of some small use to describe how I myself write. Each week I contribute either a book review or an essay to Book World, generally 1500-1800 words. Most of these pieces are composed over the course of an evening, at the Post, starting after I've already put in a day working as an editor. No believer in inspiration, come 6 o'clock I start figuring out the lead paragraph.

To me, this is the most important part of a piece, because it sets the tone for all that follows. I aim to establish a certain voice, as well as capture the reader's attention with some verbal blandishment or startling anecdote. In fact, over the years I have made a little study of openings to novels, biographies and such, being ever on the lookout for striking examples: My favorite "lede" is that to the 19th-century courtesan Hariette Wilson's memoirs:

"I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven."

I think that's hard to beat for tantalizing.

As to fiction, here's how a short story ought to begin:

"The talk had veered round to runes and curses and witches, one bleak December evening, where a few of us sat warm in easy chairs round the cheery fire of the Billiards Club. ' Do you believe in witches?' one of us said to Jorkens. "It isn't what I believe that matters so much,' said Jorkens; "only what I have seen."

After I find my lede I whisper it over to myself and fiddle around with the next sentence or two. Then I return to the beginning and read everything through again and add another few lines. And so I go along, building up the piece through accretion, gradually attaching more and more sentences, always reading everything over from the top, again and again, perhaps changing a word or two with each go-through. When I finally reach the end I work especially hard on the kicker paragraph, so that I conclude with a rousing flourish or a soft diminuendo.

At this point, I print out my piece, go home to sleep, and the next morning revise it on the subway, usually appalled by various solecisms which I correct on the hard copy. I then make changes on my computer version and I'm done.

For years I kept pinned to my bulletin board a sentence of writerly warning, Truman Capote's famous put-down of Jack Kerouac: "That's not writing, it's typing." I'm always worried that my prose will be too dry and stiff, since I have no flair for metaphor. Yet besides clarity, sentences need rhythm, warmth, color. Think of Randall Jarrell's scathing put down of a now forgotten poet's mechanical verse:

"His poems sounds as if they were written on a typewriter by a typewriter."…

To become a better writer, one needs to pay attention. Be sensitive to what you read. Listen to the melody of syntax. Did you know that two of the great masters of modern English prose, humorist P.G. Wodehouse and hard-boiled crime writer Raymond Chandler, both attended Dulwich school in England, within a few years of each other? No one matches Wodehouse for similes and delicious hyperbole:

"He drank coffee with the air of a man who regretted it was not hemlock."

"I attribute my whole success in life to a rigid observance of the fundamental rule™ Never have yourself tattooed with any woman's name, not even her initials."

"Like so many substantial citizens of America, he had married young and kept on marrying, springing from blonde to blonde like the chamois of the Alps leaping from crag to crag."

One shouldn't try to imitate such inimitable prose, but its example can help improve anyone's sentences.

As for Chandler: His descriptions can take your breath away:

"A large black and gold butterfly fishtailed in and landed on a hydrangea bush almost at my elbow, moved its wings slowly up and down a few times, then took off heavily and staggered away through the motionless hot scented air."

Staggered away is a brilliant touch, worthy of Nabokov. But I like the following even better, for the way it builds to the final unexpected word:

"The bar entrance was to the left. It was dusky and quiet and a bartender moved mothlike against the faint glitter of piled glassware. A tall handsome blond in a dress that looked like seawater sifted over with gold dust came out of the Ladies' Room touching up her lips and turned toward the arch, humming."

As Chandler once said of himself as a writer:

" I live for syntax."

How does one produce such sentences? Or at least sentences that can be read with something approaching this degree of pleasure. I do have a few suggestions:

  1. You really have to care about your subject. Have something to say. If you are indifferent or bored, your writing will be limp, dull and bland. No matter how seemingly dreary the memo you need to write, you must discover some way to make it fun for yourself. To interest is the first duty of art.
  2. Your sentences need to give you pleasure. The choice of words, the rhythm of the clauses, the sounds of the words—you should read your work aloud and listen to your voice on the page. Make sure that each sentence does a job. Eliminate verbal noiseûclutter, deadwood, mere verbiage.
  3. Keep your audience in mind. Not that you need to write down or up, but you do need to imagine how your words will register in the mind of others. You should try to read your piece as if you were a stranger to it, recasting anything cumbersome, polishing and honing every sentence. Ideally, a friend or spouse should also look it over before submission: As they say in newspapers, every writer needs an editor. But do remember that, according to H.G. Wells, "no passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft." Not least make sure your message is clear yet that you are faithful to its complexity.
  4. Strive to write in your own voice. Not that you should be overly eccentric or egotistical. But if you can't make your writing personal, reflective of your inner self, it will never give you satisfaction. In this regard, bear in mind Mark Twain's caution:

    "Only presidents, editors and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial we."

  5. The final product, whether it is a brochure or a lab report, should be a source of pride, not necessarily a lot of pride, but at least some. Otherwise, what's the point?

May I also offer a few bits of stylistic counsel?

  1. The adjective is the enemy of the noun.
  2. Be careful of rhetorical flights, cliches, vulgarisms, mixed metaphors, the passive voice.
  3. Make your prose move quickly.
  4. Use examples and anecdotes.
  5. Don't be afraid to move sentences and paragraphs around. Try to prevent your pieceäs structure from "freezing" too early. Stay flexible.
  6. For those of you producing highly technical writing, I recommend the counsel of the Roman rhetorician Quintilian:

    "One should not aim at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand."

  7. Last, remember Paul Valery's wonderful aphorism about artistic creation:

    "A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned."

I probably don't need to tell you that anyone who writes should read Strunk and White's Elements of Style and, if possible, William Zinsser's On Writing Well. Buy a dictionary and a thesaurus. Use them.

Let me leave you with one last story about plain writing. When composing his memoir of Rupert Brooke, the most dashing of the young poets who died during World War I, Edward Marsh flamboyantly wrote that Brooke left Cambridge University in "a blaze of glory." But when the poet's mother, a woman of strong character, read this, she crossed out the melodramatic phrase "a blaze of glory" and replaced it with a single word: "July."

This page last reviewed on February 22, 2011

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