Over the Christmas break I read a book about underground places called Underland where Robert Macfarlane investigates mines, caves, burial sites, and even ventures deep into the network of tunnels beneath Paris. For the most part I enjoyed it, yet every so often I found myself wincing and bracing for impact because—out of absolutely nowhere—the writing slips into obnoxious rambling.
Try reading this next bit carefully (I’m sorry):
Just as psychogeographers in the original Parisian Situationist vision of Guy Debord sought to discover astonishment on the terrain of the familiar by breaking out of the grooves of behaviour defined by capital, so politicized urban explorers present their trespasses as activism that ‘recod[es] people’s normalized relationships to city space.’
What does...any of this mean? What the eff is a psychogeographer and who the fuck is Guy Debord? (I am sorry Guy Debord, this is nothing personal against you, I’m sure you’re swell.) Also, I adore a long, unwieldy sentence from time to time but this bad boy is simply a monster. Why is that though? Well, the writer overwhelms us with smart-sounding nonsense in an attempt to prove how intelligent they are. Yet if you keep your wits about you and look closely you’ll notice how imprecise and waffling the writing truly is. There’s just so much opportunity for revision!
Although most writing is like this, the problem is often hard to spot. That’s because sentences like those above make us feel dumb. We tend to think “yikes I don’t understand any of this so this chap must be smarter than me!” And that’s just what this obfuscatory language is designed to do.
I know I shouldn’t get mad at this one dumb paragraph, but I think this happens when writers stop caring for their audience. And that lack of care is what makes me mad.
And it’s not just in non-fiction books about tunnels where this writing can be found—it’s everywhere! It’s printed on exhibit placards and on the back of novels, or typed out on company slide decks and memos. The stuff can be found in everything written about design or typography and especially in literary criticism (the genre of writing that basically invented this pretentious style). Not to mention public speaking events and political rallies, as they’re rife with this rambling self-serving crap, too.
The reason why I mention this is not to dunk on poor old Robert though, it’s only because I think this is the most important thing for us writers to learn. We must become allergic to it all. We must be ruthless in the edit. We must use the delete key generously. And we must ask so much more from ourselves when we’re writing.
Anyway, after struggling with Underland for a couple of days, I cannot tell you what a relief it was this week when I stumbled upon Harriet McBride Johnson’s piece: Unspeakable conversations. It’s so good that I don’t even know where to begin. Yes, the topic is horrifying and worthy of your attention alone, but I want to focus instead on the way that Harriet writes; the pinpoint precision and lack of any ego or waffling. It’s like a scimitar slicing through butter! Or a steady train composed entirely out of logic, unrelenting, and it’s so beautiful because not a single word is wasted.
Likewise, a few weeks ago Tori gave me H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (I am extremely late to this party). But the reason why I bring it up is because every sentence is filled with air and light. There’s no waffling, no rambling. And not a shred of pretense:
In my three years as a Cambridge Fellow there’d been lectures and libraries and college meetings, supervisions, admissions interviews, late nights of paper-writing and essay-marking, and other things soaked in Cantabrigian glamour: eating pheasant by candlelight at High Table while snow dashed itself in flurries against the leaded glass and carols were sung and the port was passed and the silver glittered upon dark-polished refectory tables. Now, standing on a cricket pitch with a hawk in my hand, I knew I had always been falling as I moved past these things.
[...] It strikes me that this must be happiness. That I have remembered what it is, and how it can be done.
Ah! Everything here has momentum! And that, in turn, lifts the reader up and brings them along for the ride. In fact, George Saunders wrote about just this feeling—of pulling the reader up and not insulting them—in one of the best pieces of writing about writing:
You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties – the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”
I think this is perhaps the hardest part of writing—of “generously imagining her”—continuously, unendingly. And this is the only difference between good and bad writing in the end. That doesn’t mean it’s easy (being kind is often the hardest thing to do) and of course I mention this not to lecture anyone but only as a keepsake and as a reminder for myself.
As George luminiously summarizes it later in that piece: “...in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too.”