Friday, November 03, 2006

Writing with Clarity

Scot McKnight has written about the difference between writing at the level of "rhetoric" and writing to "lay people." Although I have often complained about similar brands of "elitist speech" (for example, the "Christianese" that many Christians use when communicating with each other that utterly fails to communicate to those outside their niche. See this post for just one example), I must confess that, spending so many of my waking hours in the halls of a seminary, it is hard to get out of the mindset of academic rhetoric, and to use terms that would be more commonly understood were an outsider to walk by.

Why is it so hard to communicate in simple terms? I suspect that one reason is that we wish to be understood. Lawyers are infamous for the long legal briefs that they write, using terms so apparently complex that only other lawyers can dicipher them. Yet it is my understanding that, more often than not, these are written in such complex terms to more clearly communicate the intentions of the writer, so that someone else can't come along and make the document mean something else other than what was intended. They use terms and concepts which were never intended to be understood by "common" people, but which are intended to communicate clearly to other lawyers. Yet, at least it seems to me, the very complex language itself is what often makes an undesired "re-interpretation" possible. Do we similarly shoot ourselves in the foot, despite our best intentions?

And besides the issue of using terms and concepts that fail to address most people's needs, there's the simple question of length. If you go to the comments section of Scot's blog entry, you'll notice at least one or two regular bloggers who write lengthy comments. At least one of them is aware of instructions that Scot has given repeatedly to keep comments to only one or two paragraphs (See here for a recent example). The problem is, this particular blogger seems unable to keep his comments brief. In this thread, he actually breaks his comments up over several postings in an attempt to follow the letter of this rule, while completely missing the spirit of it. On one hand, I'm sympathetic to this problem (although I have to confess that I disagree with this particular person's theology on almost every meaningful level). He, more often than not, represents a minority position on Scot's blog, and he wishes to counteract the misinformation that is often out there in opposition to his own positions. He wants to be understood. Yet, because of the sheer size of his posts, I must confess to just skipping over his comments entirely on more than one occasion. His purpose is therefore defeated.

I'm not guiltless in this either. Looking through my posts (perhaps even this one), I can be pretty long-winded at times. It seems to be a common problem. But what's the alternative? Just don't write so much, and risk leaving out what seem (at the time) to be important bits of information? How would one go about chosing what to include and what to leave out? And how much of the problem is less about length, and more about the concepts that are being discussed in the first place, some which are arguably on levels that many people simply don't care about?

I guess we'll see on Monday if I get any better at writing with more clarity. ;)

1 comment:

  1. Actually -- and the urban myth of legalese notwithstanding -- one could hardly wish for a better course in clear, concise and effective communication than law school.

    Lawyers are acutely aware that they need to speak to jury members on their level; nothing comes off worse than an attorney who steam-rollers her audience. I personally credit a legal education with making me a better, clearer writer -- and will happily submit my college and seminary papers as shining examples of a "before" and "after."

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