Monday, September 7, 2009

Concise writing is usually clear writing (6) – Joan Didion

Here are two more great examples of concise, clear writing. They are from A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion. As you may know, Ms. Didion is famous not only for her concision but also for her detachment and precision. You can see all these qualities in the passages quoted below.

Example of Concision

The setting of the novel is the fictional Boca Grande, a small and poor Latin American country. The narrator, Grace, is a widow and a member of the ruling family. Here, she describes her sister-in-law Elena:

The day Luis [the president] was shot Elena [his wife] flew into exile in Geneva, a theatrical gesture but unnecessary, since even before her plane left the runway the coup was over and Little Victor had assumed temporary control of the government. The wife of any other Latin president would have known immediately that a coup in which the airport remained open was a coup doomed to fail, but Elena had no instinct for being the wife of a Latin president. Nor does she make a particularly appropriate presidential widow. In any case. A few weeks later Elena came back. Edgar and his father and I met her at the airport. She was wearing tinted glasses and a new Balenciaga coat, lettuce-green. She was carrying a matching parrot.

The passage is only 124 words long. However, it tells us a lot about Grace (worldly-wise), Elena (histrionic), the family (powerful), and the insurgents (weak).

Example of Concision

Later in the novel, Grace describes how the family stays in control of the government:

Oil wells about to come in have a sound the attentive ear can detect.

As do earthquakes.

Volcanoes about to erupt transmit for days or weeks before their convulsion a signal called "the harmonic tremor."

Similarly I know for months before the fact when there is about to be a "transition" in Boca Grande. There is the occasional tank on the Avenida Centrale. Sentries with carbines appear on the roof of the presidential palace. For reasons I have never understood the postal rates begin to fluctuate mysteriously. There is a mounting mania for construction, for getting one’s cut while the government lasts: dummy corporations multiply, phantom payrolls metastasize. No one has an office but everyone has a mail drop. A game is underway, the "winner" being the player who lands his marker in the Ministry of Defense, and the play has certain ritual moves: whoever wants the Ministry that year must first get the guerrilleros into the game. The guerrilleros seem always to believe that they are playing on their own, but they are actually a diversion, a disruptive element placed on the board only to be "quelled" by "stronger leadership." Guns and money begin to reach the guerrilleros via the usual channels. Mimeographed communiqués begin to appear, and twenty people are detained for questioning. A few are reported as prison suicides and a few more reported in exile but months later, again mysteriously, the same twenty are detained for questioning.

A mounting giddiness about the proximity of the guerrilleros sets the social tone of the city: many tea dances are planned, many adulterous liaisons initiated.

Many citizens adopt eccentric schedules to comply with the terms of their kidnapping insurance.

El Presidente, whoever is playing El Presidente at the moment, falls ill, and is urged to convalesce at Bariloche, in Argentina.

In only 301 words, Ms. Didion gives us a clear sense of the narrator’s cynicism, the family’s corruption, and the insurgents’ foolishness.

In both passages, the writer is restrained and deadpan. The reader supplies the emotions. This is a powerful literary technique, smoothly executed.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least ten minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly, such as Joan Didion. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful diction and the careless, vague, infantile diction that besets us every day. The topic you select for your reading 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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