Monday, April 1, 2013

Concise writing is usually clear writing (31) -- Ian McEwan

Here’s another great example of concise, clear writing. These are the first 156 words of Solar, a 2010 novel by English novelist Ian McEwan (pictured). Mr. McEwan is a fine craftsman and his craftsmanship is especially strong in his openings.

He belonged to that class of men – vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever – who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so. And it helped that some women believed he was a genius in need of rescue. But the Michael Beard of this time was a man of narrowed mental condition, anhedonic, monothematic, stricken. His fifth marriage was disintegrating, and he should have known how to behave, how to take the long view, how to take the blame. Weren’t marriages, his marriages, tidal, with one rolling out just before another rolled in? But this one was different. He did not know how to behave, long views pained him, and for once there was no blame for him to assume, as he saw it. It was his wife who was having the affair, and having it flagrantly, punitively, certainly without remorse.

In so few words, we have already learned quite a lot about the unlikable protagonist, Michael Beard. This is typical McEwan: it is easy to digest vast amounts of information from his prose without feeling overloaded. By the way, if you like novels and have not yet read Ian McEwan, I urge you to give him a try. I especially recommend Atonement – my favorite novel from any author.

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 Ian McEwan. 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 joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

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