Sunday, April 20, 2008


The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.
--George Orwell

When I teach freshman comp I often talk to students about how writing is a recursive process—a series of steps that can circle back and repeat itself endlessly.

And in the meantime I’ve been influenced by writers like L. Rust Hills who describe the “integration” of all the elements of fiction.

That quote from Orwell reminds me to anticipate those qualities. If we take sincerity in fiction to be the result of fully knowing and respecting your characters, honestly and deeply imagining the situation they’re in and how they would feel about it and respond to it, then sincerity is presumably handled in early drafts of a book.

However, neglecting to do that and the insincerity that would seem to result in a given episode might only have its first symptom in the language refusing to be clear—something that presumably a writer would pay the closest attention to late in the process. An abstraction refusing to be made concrete, a tangled sentence refusing to come unknotted—I expect these to be wonderful hints that the story itself is incomplete and that I’ve taken emotional shortcuts. I expect the copyediting process to send me back wearily to try again to develop the story and make it more honest, seemingly endlessly.

Or to put it as Joseph Williams does in Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, “When you revise your early confusion into something clearer you better understand your own ideas. And when you understand your ideas better, you express them more clearly, and when you express them more clearly, you understand them even better . . . and so it goes.”

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