Clear ideas convince

Back when I was teaching, I spent roughly 98% of my time with students breaking them of bad writing habits.

What happens is, they read awful writing and assume that it's part of the "insider club".

Smart people must write this way, they think.

They try to copy the style.

Which makes them into bad writers... who become academics... who pass on the bad habits to the next generation.

I'm convinced that the Fukushima-style meltdown currently happening in the universities is directly traced to the sloppy thinking and jargon-filled garble that passes for writing there.

On the other side, if you can express yourself with simple, direct, clear, concrete sentences, you win.

Clear ideas convince.

I came from the world of philosophy, which is known for technical clarity and precision (or unreadable nonsense if you're in France).

Let me tell you a secret.

Even in philosophy, there are very few ideas that call for complicated language.

There are complicated ideas and arguments, yes. A difficult argument might take you 4-5 read-throughs to "get it".

But that shouldn't be because the words get in the way.

One of the German philosophers I used to work on was once criticized with this gem:

"He is no friend to the reader."

Translated from the backhanded compliments of academic-ese, that means

"This fool can't write."

I don't read so many science papers as I used to, but they're awful about this in their own way.

The words should help understanding. Too many writers either don't get this, or don't care. They let the words get in the way of understanding.

Plus, complication carries its own mystique.

The more dense, convoluted, and jargon-ized the prose, the more depth it must contain.

I tell you, it ain't so.

Even technical ideas must be persuasive.

While complicated writing can build a cult-like following, if you want to reach beyond obscure niche-interests that will never see the sunlight outside of the Ivory Tower, you need clarity and simplicity.

If they can't understand you, you haven't done your job as a writer.

If you haven't done your writerly duties, you haven't convinced the reader of your ideas.

And what's the point of that?

Be good & take it easy.

Matt Perryman

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