Writing Frankly

In a recent post (Airy Abstractions), we took up the topic of nouns that name ideas we perceive in our mind, not concrete objects we see or taste or touch in the world. We saw that using too many such abstract nouns, as they’re called, mystifies both our sentences and our readers by pointing to notions rather than to real things in the world. And though you may argue like a good philosopher, and I would agree, that ideas are nowhere else but in the world, the frame of mind we have on when we’re reading expository prose is one that responds to specific images. That’s where power and interest lie.

Something else to look for as we revise our work, though, is an artificial written voice. Imagine, for example, that two people have been speaking on the phone, an easy and relatively informal conversation about a business proposal of some sort. One tells the other that he’ll put something together, and the next day he sends an email that begins, Attached please find the proposal we discussed yesterday. What? No one would speak like that face to face with someone else, so why did the writer assume such a distant, impersonal voice when he sat down to compose his email? This is a common problem in professional writing, whether commercial or academic or technical, and one answer to help explain it is that we seem to feel the need to sound like the professional role we’ve assumed. We believe, mistakenly, that with a more formal objectivity comes rightful authority, and so as we compose our sentences, we write through a professional mask which we have convinced ourselves is necessary to claim the right to write about the subject at hand. The price for that can be quite high.

All of this has to do with a department of writing called diction, the choice and arrangement of words. It is quite true, of course, that we all have many different voices, written and oral, for the particular circumstances we may happen to find ourselves in, and every profession certainly has its specialized vocabulary. The problem we are discussing here is not formality; the problem is inopportune formality, the need we feel to write in a voice that is not ours when the circumstances do not call for it. The vendor in our example who began his email with Attached please find got nothing for that formal phrase that the straightforward I have attached a proposal would not have conveyed to his customer—nothing other than an unappealing and unhelpful stiffness. The writer forgot that the words we choose and the sentences we compose with them are veritable human bridges extending across to others, and as tiresome as that metaphor might sound, there remains real truth in it. We are who we are, at least socially if not metaphysically, by virtue of the language we choose to use; we build our relationships through language, and we disserve ourselves and others when we contort our language for the sake of appearance. In the end, it’s just not necessary.

A fine work on this topic, written for academics but applicable to all of us, is Brand Blanshard’s On Philosophical Style (St. Augustine’s Press, 2009). Blanshard’s point is that our language reflects our mind, and that we are not merely, as he puts it, “dynamos humming in a vacuum.” He reminds us that “actual thought is always bathed in personal feeling, and invested with the lights and shades of an individual temperament.” To reveal that personal feeling, to make the relationship we have to our ideas known to our readers, is an emotional risk, and that can account in large measure for the unnecessary distance we write into our sentences. We are under no obligation to make our personal feelings about every last thing known to anyone who may inquire, but we do owe it to ourselves and our readers to speak frankly and naturally about the subject we have willingly engaged in. For over that solid bridge can come understanding.


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