Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Concise writing is usually clear writing (4) - Joyce Carol Oates

Here is another great example of concise writing that is also clear writing. It is from the short story, “Mrs. Halifax and Rickie Swann: A Ballad,” by Joyce Carol Oates.

In this short story, Rickie Swann is a fourteen-year-old living with his mother and step-father. The step-father has no significant role in the action, but the author needs to introduce him so that the reader can “meet” the whole family. So the author introduces the step-father and finishes with him in one paragraph.

Many authors would be tempted to treat such a paragraph as a routine task. But the masterly Ms. Oates captures a man, a career, a marriage and a retirement – and even something of the town – in these remarkable 138 words:

Rickie tried to love his step-father who spent most of his time now indoors in a Barcalounger noisily sucking oxygen through tubes in his nose and flicking through ninety-nine TV channels. Mr. Swann suffered from emphysema caused by years of inhaling the toxic stink of hogs bound for slaughter. Mr. Swann said the hogs, unlike cows, knew where they were headed and so shat in a continuous diarrhetic stream you could smell not only in the cab of his truck but everywhere in the truck’s wake. Something of the brooding diarrhetic melancholy of the doomed hogs clung to Mr. Swann even in his retirement years with his “new family” which he’d hoped would have been a happy time. Over the years Rickie had grown accustomed to the smell of his step-dad and hardly ever noticed it any longer.

Joyce Carol Oates consistently exhibits craftsmanship like this – in novel after novel and story after story. She is a marvel.

The Takeaway: If you are serious about improving the clarity of your writing, I strongly recommend that you spend at least ten minutes every day reading aloud from writers who write clearly, such as Joyce Carol Oates. The topic you select doesn’t matter, because you’re reading for style not content. If you would like a list of recommended writers and works, please email me at the address shown in my profile. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

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