Francine Prose: It’s Harder Than It Looks to Write Clearly

Ask Yourself, Would I Say This?

By  Francine Prose

If we are hoping to communicate something—anything—nothing is more important than clarity. The dangers of not being clear are obvious. Is that driver approaching the intersection signaling right or left? Is the brain surgeon asking for a scalpel or a clamp? One could argue that the consequences of writing an unintelligible sentence are not nearly so drastic as a car wreck or a botched operation. But it’s a slippery slope. Which one of the rungs in the ladder were we warned to watch out for? Was it the basement or the bathtub that Auntie Em told us to take shelter in when the tornado hit Kansas?

Explaining what it means to be clear should, in theory, be easy. But in fact it’s surprisingly difficult to define this deceptively obvious concept. The simplest definition may be best: To write clearly means that another person can understand what we mean. Someone (not us) can figure out what we are trying to say.

Of course, an intelligent seven-year-old could point out the problems with this. Maybe some people will understand what we mean, but some people never will, and inevitably someone will think we meant something entirely different from whatever we had in mind. Endless variables can affect what, and how, and how much we understand: age, class, language, culture, gender, history, and so forth. And perfect communication can occur without one word being spoken.

But let’s say that you have written something, and it turns out that no one has the faintest idea what in the world you could possibly mean—no one but you, the writer. And in the absence of clarity even the writer may forget the formerly obvious purpose that has somehow managed to burrow and hide beneath a fuzzy blanket of language. On the other end of the spectrum is the sentence or paragraph that the reader cannot only comprehend instantly but see straight through to the writer’s intention, so that reader and writer are communicating directly, brain to brain, like aliens in science fiction.

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Obviously, it is easier to write a short clear sentence than a long clear one. One sentence that I (and I think most people) would agree is clear is the opening of Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger: “Mother died today.”

A more recent translation by Matthew Ward begins “Maman died today.” In a preface, Ward argues that Maman, more affectionate than Mother, better expresses the narrator’s feelings. “No sentence in French literature in English translation is better known than the opening sentence of The Stranger. It has become a sacred cow of sorts, and I have changed it. In his notebooks Camus recorded the observation that ‘the curious feeling a son has for his mother constitutes all his sensibility.’ And Sartre went out of his way to point out Meursault’s use of the child’s word “Maman” when speaking of his mother.”

Maybe we should venture deeper into colloquial English and say, Mom died today. Not according to the New Yorker blog post in which Ryan Bloom argues that Ward’s use of the French word may be helpful to younger readers unaware that The Stranger is set in French colonial Algeria. Maman, Bloom claims, somewhat contradictorily, is also preferable because the American reader will “understand it with ease, but it will carry no baggage.” So it won’t affect our opinion about Meursault’s response to the death of his mother. But, Bloom goes on, the translation of “Aujourd’hui Maman est morte” really should be “Today Maman died.” Beginning the sentence with today signals that “Meursault is a character who, first and foremost, lives for the moment.”

Mother died today. Maman died today. Today Maman died. My mother died today. Today my mother died. What all these versions have in common is that they are clear. Each suggests a slightly different shade of meaning, a refinement of our understanding of the complex responses elicited by the word mother in any language; along with a slightly different emphasis on when her death occurred. But for the moment, let’s forget subtext and focus on basic clarity: What can be understood.

Regardless of how the narrator feels about his mother, regardless of how critical it is that she died today or yesterday, regardless of our knowledge of the colony in which the novel takes place, it’s hard to imagine a reader who doesn’t understand what it being communicated: The narrator’s mother died today. Later we can look back on this line as a key to who the narrator is, to the mystery of why he does what he does, and to the consequences of his actions. But no matter what we conclude, the fact remains that we have understood the first thing he has told us.

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Camus’s sentence contains three words. Most of the three-word sentences that come to mind—She likes chocolate. The sun shone. I love you—are clear, even if we interpret their meaning in different ways. It is hard but not impossible to put three words together in ways that don’t make sense. The elephant and. Down tree dog. Big along also. Lacking either a subject or verb, or both, none of these are proper sentences.

Three random words in isolation can sound like surrealist poetry. But they are less amusing when we actually want or need to understand them. Few readers would have the patience for a long novel featuring page after page of nonsense. And what if the directions for assembling the children’s bunk bed were written like that—and made even less sense than they ordinarily do?

I’ve heard the writer Jo Ann Beard say that an exercise she does with her students is to tell them to open the book or story they are studying, turn to a page at random, put their finger on a sentence, and read the sentence aloud. Is it true? Is it clear? Is it beautiful?

You can pick up a volume of Chekhov’s stories and open it anywhere, and, no matter how well or poorly the Russian has been translated, you will probably have a hard time finding a sentence you can’t understand. This is because, as much as any other writer and more than most, Chekhov put such a premium on writing comprehensibly, without flowery language or unnecessary adornment.

Everything we write is, in a sense, translated from another language, from the chatter we hear inside our head, translated from that interior babble (more or less comprehensible to us) into (what we hope will be) the clearer, more articulate language on the page.”

In his critical but tactful letter to Maxim Gorky, written in January 1899, Chekhov delicately approaches the problem of the younger author’s over-writing: “Your nature descriptions are artistic; you are a true landscape painter. But your frequent personifications, when the sea breathes, the sky looks on, the steppe basks, nature whispers, talks, grieves, etc.—these personifications make your descriptions a bit monotonous, sometimes cloying, and sometimes unclear. Color and expressivity in nature descriptions are achieved through simplicity alone, through simple phrases like ‘the sun set,’ ‘it grew dark,’ ‘it began to rain.’ etc.”

Ten months later, he again writes to Gorky, who seems not to have followed the advice Chekhov gave him in the earlier letter. Either forgetting or politely pretending that he is saying something entirely new, Chekhov more or less repeats the substance of his earlier letter. But puts it in a different way, focusing on description in general rather than descriptions of nature in particular: “Another piece of advice: when you read proof, cross out as many modifiers of nouns and verbs as you can. You have so many modifiers that the reader has a hard time figuring out what deserves his attention, and it tires him out. If I write, ‘A man sat down on the grass,’ it is understandable because it is clear and doesn’t require a second reading. But it would be hard to follow and brain-taxing if I wrote, ‘A tall, narrow-chested, red-bearded man of medium height sat down noiselessly, looking around timidly and in fright, on a patch of green grass that had been trampled by pedestrians.’ The brain can’t grasp all of this at once, and the art of fiction ought to be immediately, instantaneously graspable.”

After Chekhov has finished writing about Gorki’s work, the gloves come off. Like many of Chekhov’s letters, this one contradicts the contemporary image of Chekhov as a sort of literary Dalai Lama, or as Janet Malcolm has written, “When someone speaks Chekhov’s name, it’s as if a baby deer has come into the room.” In his letter, Chekhov rips into Life, a communist journal that Gorky writes for and in the process shreds two of its contributors: “Chirikov’s story is naive and dishonest. Veresayev’s story is a crude imitation of something or other, possibly of the husband in your ‘Orlov and his Wife. It is crude and naive as well.”

The letter ends with a paragraph as melancholy and Chekhovian as the speeches the characters in his plays give when, like Uncle Vanya and Sonya, at the end of Uncle Vanya, they are renouncing love and passion and dedicating their entire lives to hard work and self-sacrifice. Earlier, Chekhov has suggested that Gorky move to a major city, that it would be better for his work, and the younger writer has replied that, for now, he’d rather remain on the move, bumming around, seeing things and having experiences.

“Vagabondage,” writes Chekhov, “is all well and good and quite alluring, but as the years go by, you lose mobility and become attached to one spot. And the literary profession has a way of sucking you in. Failure and disappointments make time go by so fast that you fail to notice your real life, and the past when I was so free seems to belong to someone else, not myself.” When Chekhov wrote this he was 39. He would be dead in five years.

*

Though Chekhov’s adjective-heavy, “unclear” sentence—the tall, narrow-chested, red bearded man sitting down timidily and so forth—is in fact not all that hard to follow, we know what he is saying. And he has put his finger on a problem that often affects writers and just as frequently stands in the way of clarity: the belief that every noun needs an adjective, that every sentence must be elaborate, that every turn of phrase must be lyrical, poetic, and above all original, and that it represents some sort of shameful failure of the imagination to use language in a way that can be readily understood by all. 

In part, this problem may have something to do with the ease and frequency with which students misinterpret the well-meaning advice of teachers who suggest they use strong adjectives, forceful verbs (why should a character walk when he can stride, why should he speak when he can expostulate?), and avoid the passive tense.

Everything we write is, in a sense, translated from another language, from the chatter we hear inside our head, translated from that interior babble (more or less comprehensible to us) into (what we hope will be) the clearer, more articulate language on the page. But during the process of that translation, basic clarity often suffers—sometimes fatally!—when, for whatever reason, we feel that we are translating our natural speech into a foreign language: in other words, when we are writing.

For many students, this foreign language is one that I have come to think of as paper-ese: the language of the classroom essay, peppered with awkward conjunctions (“Thus we see,” “Furthermore”), clumsy locutions (“it can be observed that,” “we are made to have”) and with words that only the most eccentric 21st century person would employ in everyday speech. I have never heard a student use, in conversation, the words attire, surmise, and especially deem (“the story can be deemed as being ironic,” “her face could be deemed as kindly”) but these words recur, almost every year, in the first papers they write for my classes. This problem is aggravated when they have been exposed to academic jargon and feel compelled to use the terminology of a particular field of study.

In an effort to counteract this, I ask to students to write the following sentence in their notebooks, in capital letters: WOULD I SAY THIS? And I tell them not to write anything that they wouldn’t say. This does not mean that they should write exactly as they speak, but rather that they avoid, in their writing, anything they would not say out loud to another human being. Hi Mom and Dad, I surmise you won’t be too mad if I deem it necessary to go to my boyfriend’s house for Thanksgiving.

It’s remarkable how rapidly students’ writing improves—how much clearer it becomes—when they feel liberated from the burden of forcing their ideas through the narrow channel of “thus we see,” the constricted passageway of “furthermore the man’s attire could be deemed characteristic of his gender and social status.” I also assign them to bring in a passage of especially thick, impenetrable jargon, together with their own translation into plain speech. In class, they read aloud both versions, and it’s always interesting, and often very funny, to note how quickly the bombast of the jargon collapses; this exercise often seems to inspire another dramatic improvement, a quantum leap in my students’ writing.

Perhaps I should also ask my students to copy out “A man sat down on the grass” on the same page as “Would I say this? “ Chekhov’s sentence is a model of what it means to be clear. But like “Mother died today,” it is short and compact.

Obviously, it’s easier to be clear when one is using fewer words; in Chekhov’s case, only seven. As a sentence gets longer, lucidity becomes more of a challenge. How can we be sure of being clear when we are constructing a sentence that needs to be long because, were it shorter, were it broken up into more easily manageable components, it would be less graceful, less informative, and less beautiful. Watching a writer spin out an extremely long but nonetheless clear sentence is like watching a tightrope walker cross from one end of the wire to the other. You want to cheer when the sentence makes it all the way to the period without a false step, so that the reader is still easily following along.

Here are some long sentences I continue to admire for their grace, their clarity, and for the bravado with which they add one word to another without fear of confusing us, or of losing our attention.

The first step toward being clear is like the first step in an addiction-recovery program: admit that there is a problem.”

The first is the well-known final sentence of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address: “It is rather for us to be dedicated here to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The second is from the US Constitution: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Reading the sentences above makes one want to know how and where Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson learned to write. It will come as no surprise that they were both avid readers. Lincoln, a partial autodidact, was particularly fond of the Bible, Aesop’s Fables, and The Pilgrim’s Progress; later he read Lord Byron and Macbeth. As a privileged Virginia boy, with tutors, Thomas Jefferson learned Latin, read the Greeks, and studied mathematics and British philosophy at the College of William and Mary. You can hear echoes of what both men read in the sentences they wrote.

Another eloquent long sentence appears near the beginning of the majority opinion authored by Chief Justice Harry Blackmun, in the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade.

“One’s philosophy, one’s experiences, one’s exposure to the raw edges of human existence, one’s religious training, one’s attitudes towards life and family and their values, and the moral standards one establishes and seeks to observe, are all likely to influence and color one’s thinking and conclusions about abortion.” 

No matter how we ourselves feel about the complicated and emotionally fraught issue of abortion, it’s difficult not to admire the thoughtful and cautious precision of Chief Justice Blackmun’s writing, impossible not to imagine how long it took him to write this, to come up with a phrase as delicate and compassionate as “the raw edges of human existence.” Blackmun himself grew up in a working class neighborhood in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where his father sold fruits and vegetables. He received a scholarship to Harvard, attended Harvard Law School, and, decades later, due partly to the intercession of his childhood friend, Chief Justice Warren Burger, was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Richard Nixon. Among his other distinctions were his great talent as a writer, his gift for clear thought and clear expression. Other examples of his way with words and with ideas are the following well known quotations: “In order to get beyond racism we must first take account of race” and “No longer is the female destined solely for the home and the rearing of the family, and only the male for the marketplace and the world of ideas.”

Considering how many of Chekhov’s characters live on the raw edges to which Justice Blackmun referred, we can assume that, despite the obvious divisions in culture and background, despite the dissimilar times in which they lived, the Russian writer would have known what the American Chief Justice meant in his ruling on Roe v. Wade—regardless of the fact that Blackmun’s sentence, like the one from the Gettysburg Address, and from the US Constitution, is considerably longer and more complicated than “The man sat down on the grass” or “Mother died today.”

Obviously, these very short and very long sentences take different amounts of time to read, different amounts of time to process and understand. What they have in common is that they are clear. We can understand them.

*

The first step toward being clear is like the first step in an addiction-recovery program: admit that there is a problem. Or if clarity is not a problem, at least it is a concern. Human beings assume that something that is clear to them will be clear to other people, but sadly, that is not the case. At every stage of writing—for the student and the teacher, for the authors of grocery lists, conference notes, emails, text messages, poems, and novels—it is shocking to be misunderstood. It’s like the insult of finding out that someone doesn’t like us.

It might help to know what we’re being when we’re not being clear. But once again it’s hard to define: the opposite of clarity. Obscurity, I suppose. But something can be obscure (an obscure film, an obscure reference) and still be clear. Unintelligible, murky, and confusing come closer, but these are adjectives whose noun forms (unintelligibility, murkiness) are awkward, and something can be extremely unclear and only mildly confusing. And at what point does the reader decide that something is simply too much trouble to bother to untangle and understand?

It would be too easy to pick one of the thousands of unclear sentences I’ve read in student papers. It would seem like a violation of a privileged communication, and besides, it would be unfair to hold up examples of what this or that person did wrong before he or she learned to do better. So to illustrate what I mean by an unclear sentence, I will quote from the work of a well known writer, from No Time Like the Present, a novel by Nadine Gordimer. ”This young comrade parent or that was in detention, who knew when she, he, would be released, this one had fathered only in the biological sense, he was somewhere in another country learning the tactics of guerilla war or in the strange covert use of that elegantly conventional department of relations between countries, diplomacy to gain support for the overthrow of the regime by means of sanctions if not arms.”

Another unclear sentence, less convoluted but possibly more obscure, occurs in Slow Man, a novel by Gordimer’s fellow South African and fellow Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee: “That was why, later on, he began to lose interest in photography: first when colour took over, then when it became plain that the old magic of light-sensitive emulsions was waning, that to the rising generation the enchantment lay in a techne of images without substance, images that could flash through the ether without residing in it anywhere, that could be sucked into a machine and emerge from it doctored, untrue.”

I can’t imagine that Gordimer and Coetzee meant their sentences to be so awkward, so needlessly bothersome to read. Perhaps they’d hoped we’d get more than we do when we’d sorted everything out, or perhaps one danger of the Nobel Prize is a silencing of the voice that nags the writer to be clear, a voice that haunts my students, laboring so hard to improve.

In order to be clear it is necessary to at least consider the possibility that we actually may not be. It requires stepping outside of one’s self, reading a sentence as if we were another person (not us) who didn’t understand, and even sort of admire the newly minted gold on the screen or the page. It requires a kind of humility, an ability not to take everything personally and to separate ourselves from our work. Clarity is not only a literary quality but a spiritual one, involving, as it does, compassion for the reader.

One can’t blame people for not wanting to subject their work to the real or preemptively imagined scrutiny of a reader who wants to understand, who tries to understand, but finally just can’t. How much care and effort we’ve put into choosing words and putting them together, into making something out of nothing: printer ink and paper. How disappointing to discover that we may have failed, that we may have to fix what’s wrong, or start over from the beginning.

Clarity is not only a literary quality but a spiritual one, involving, as it does, compassion for the reader.”

The most helpful editors, professionals, and friends, are the ones who will talk for ten minutes (or exchange a chain of emails) about a single word. Let’s say about the difference between convince and persuade. The ones who make me realize how many words and sentences can be taken out without anyone (including me) being aware that anything is missing. The ones who have the courage to say, This isn’t clear. It doesn’t make sense. Eventually, their voices take up residence in one’s head, like friendly editor earworms.

Suppose we’ve admitted a problem exists. Something is not clear. What is the second step?

Francine Prose
Francine Prose
Francine Prose is the author of 20 works of fiction. Her novel A Changed Man won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Blue Angel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her most recent works of nonfiction include the highly acclaimed Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, and the New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer. The recipient of numerous grants and honors, including a Guggenheim and a Fulbright, a Director's Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, Prose is a former president of PEN American Center, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her most recent book is What to Read and Why. She lives in New York City.





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