Thursday, April 25, 2013

Concise writing is usually clear writing (32) – Dorothy Parker

Here’s another example of concise, clear writing. In “The Lovely Leave,” a short story by Dorothy Parker (pictured), the narrator is a woman whose husband is in the air force during a war. She has not seen him since a 24-hour leave two months ago. During that leave, she was shy and awkward, and she fretted so much about how quickly the hours were passing that she and her husband argued. Then she brooded for two months over having ruined the leave and the memory of the leave. Now she learns that her husband is scheduled for another 24-hour leave, and she silently vows not to repeat her mistake:
“She need not brood over it any more. She had her lesson; she could forget how she had learned it. This new leave would be the one to remember, the one he and she would have, to keep forever. She was to have a second chance, another twenty-four hours with him. After all, that is no short while, you know; that is, if you do not think of it as a thin little row of hours dropping off like beads from a broken string. Think of it as a whole long day and a whole long night, shining and sweet, and you will be all but awed by your fortune. For how many people are there who have the memory of a whole long day and a whole long night, shining and sweet, to carry with them in their hearts until they die?” (Source)
The paragraph is classic Dorothy Parker, in her slice-of-life style and with her exquisite craftsmanship. We readers guess that the wife’s failing is habitual. We induce a lot about her temperament. We experience her vow and the emotions that accompany it.* We hope that she will succeed but we fear that she will fail again. We are moved. That’s an impressive payload for 143 words. Very concise writing.

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 Dorothy Parker. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful diction and the careless, vague, infantile diction (sample here) 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.

P.S.: The word concise means “free from all elaboration and superfluous detail.” But be careful before you drop words into the “elaboration and superfluous detail” bucket. For example, in the last sentence Mrs. Parker could have omitted the five words “with them in their hearts.” And she could have decided not to repeat that long, cumbersome phrase, “a whole long day and a whole long night, shining and sweet.” The sentence would have read like this:
“For how many people are there who have such a memory to carry until they die?”
Same meaning as what she did write, but with far less emotional power. What she did write captured the natural, rambling flow of thought and the sentimental way in which we sometimes savor our happiest thoughts.

See disclaimer.

*One critic said that when you read Dorothy Parker, you always get the emotions naked.

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