Every Thanksgiving since 1961, The Wall Street Journal has published The Desolate Wilderness , an excerpt “of those memorable circumstances of the year 1620, as recorded by Nathaniel Morton, keeper of the records of Plymouth Colony, based on the account of William Bradford, sometime governor thereof.” (You can read it here and it is absolutely worth a few minutes of your time.)
When I reread this account annually, I am impressed not only by the story and reporting itself, but also by the clarity and conciseness of the writing, and the vivid images it creates in the reader's mind. Back in those days, writing was physically difficult and demanding—paper was expensive, you had to make and maintain your quill pen, and you often had to make your own ink. As a consequence, people thought long and hard before they wrote, and made every word count: fixing “mistakes” or changing what you wrote was not a trivial matter, and the words didn't come cheap or easy. Microsoft Word, and keyboards and tablets (or similar apps and hardware) did not exist.
Fast-forward about 400 years, and things sure have changed . The act of writing/publishing is simple, edits are easily made and basic errors (such as “typos”) are trivial to correct. Now everyone can be an author with a blog, it seems. Nothing wrong with that, it’s generally a good thing that people have the desire and opportunity to write—and publish—what's on their mind.
But there is also some responsibility which should go with that ease and casualness. Too many of the many columns, commentaries, articles, blogs, and similar items which I see are so poorly written. They have tired clichés, worn-out phrases, semi-coherent thoughts, mixed metaphors, and meaningless analogies. They read as if they are what the author coughed up before breakfast, and often, I suspect, are no more than just that. In short, they do not make a pretty picture.
As George Orwell (better known to us as the author of 1984 and Animal Farm ) pointed out in his lengthy, outstanding essay Politics and the English Language , writers who resort to clichés and tired phrases are, first, lazy and secondly, eventually dishonest. This is because the clichés and phrases they invoke are often used to conceal and obscure what the author really wants to say: he/she is unsure of what he/she is trying to say, or afraid to be direct about it. Result: the author needs to use verbal camouflage and blurring to defocus the message.
There's no need to use big words, fancy phrases, complex structures, or any other high-end techniques to say what you have to say. It is now so much easier to write and publish, but that does not excuse authors from taking the time to be clear, direct, and create images for the audience, without resorting to tired phrases that are stripped of real meaning.
The Pilgrims knew this and could do it—as proven by the Desolate Wilderness piece cited above—and so can we, by spending an appropriate amount of time, effort, and thought.If we don't respect the audience, how can we expect them to respect what we are trying to say?
What kind of writing do you see and follow? Do you sometimes abandon a potentially promising commentary, column, or blog because you can't decipher it??