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On Graceful Writing

Rachel Toor has a fine essay at The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Problem Is: You Write Too Well” (full text for subscribers only), which outlines a complaint that is heard with amazing frequency: your writing is too easy to read.  As Toor states,

“People on my dissertation committee,” explained several young scholars, “said that I write too well.”

I personally had one of these experiences.  One of my professors met with me about a seminar paper and he gave me what I thought was going to be a compliment.  He complimented my writing and then told me to stop writing so well.  He said something like this:
 “Gene, your writing style is very clear and concise.  Very muscular.  But it is not academic writing.  It is popular writing.  If you persist in writing clear prose, you will never get far in academic writing.  Academic writing must be turgid and convoluted.  You must force your reader to read your sentences four and five times before she can understand what you are trying to say.  You must obscure the concepts that just anyone can understand.  You must, as literally as possible, grab your reader by the throat and pull her face into the text, holding her captive until she can escape by understanding the essay in full after struggling and wrestling with your words.”

You can imagine my thoughts as I received this comment.  This advice ran contrary to everything I had been taught by previous professors and contradicted the advice I gave to my own students in composition classes.  I was really confused and brought it up to someone else in the department who clued me in.
“Oh, he’s a total Marxist, through and through.  You have to understand, Marxists do not like consumerism.  And he believes that writing that is too easy to read is complicit in passive consumerism.  What he is doing is criticizing the larger culture of consumerism.  He wants your prose to fight passive consumption.   And if you write like that, you will signal to other Marxists that you are in their club. At their hearts, Marxists are actually elitists who thrive within a private club populated by self-referencing winkers.”

When my next paper came due, I anticipated his concerns and wrote a painfully complicated essay which he liked very much.  After all, I’m a big believer in the concept of audience and wanted to communicate effectively with him, my sole audience for that paper.  But after that course, I went back to what I believed to be a superior rhetorical style.  I believed, and still do, that effective communication is an attempt to overcome the brokenness of language that is the result of fallenness.  In this way, clear writing is a foretaste of grace, that wonderful concept that reminds us that something must bridge the gap between us and perfection, the gap that divides us from other persons as well as God.

Worldview affects everything, doesn’t it?  Even the way we approach our writing.

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