Thursday, June 6, 2013

Concise writing is usually clear writing (33) – Jacques Barzun

Here’s another good example of concise, clear writing.

After Jacques Barzun died, his grandson Charles Barzun (pictured) was encouraged by relatives and friends to write about his decades-long correspondence with his grandfather. Charles decided to write an article in the form of a letter to his departed grandfather. A sample:

Once, I even asked for romantic advice. In my late 20s, when most of my friends began pairing off, I wondered why I hadn’t yet done so. I inquired as to your views on marriage and love. Marriage, you stressed, requires common hopes and expectations: “If your bookishness strikes your soulmate as wimpish and her passion for nightclubs and dancing seems to you juvenile, it’s best not to become one in civil and canon law.” A good marriage, you wrote, depends on equal degrees of punctuality, orderliness, and thriftiness: “Some couples are very happy living always in debt, always being late, and finding leftover pizza under a sofa cushion.” You then dealt with a trickier problem:

“Remains the enigma of love. The first and perhaps only settled principle is that love and being in love are different emotions. The test of the difference is this: Love includes liking; being in love does not, though the pair in that condition are not aware of their dislike (or mutual indifference) till too late. Their quarrels might alert them, but usually don’t.”

When he wrote that advice, Jacques was in his 90s. He was still practicing what he preached in his widely used text Simple & Direct.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least ten minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly. 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 the address shown in my profile. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

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