Monday, September 23, 2013

Concise writing is usually clear writing (34) – Louise Erdrich

Here’s another outstanding example of concise, clear writing. It’s from The Painted Drum, by Louise Erdrich (pictured):
“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”
The writing is lean, even austere. And yet it’s also intimate. You could easily imagine Louise Erdrich sitting with you and speaking to you. Her voice is steady and compelling. You know, even as the words reach your ears, that you will never forget them.

Now read the passage aloud. Notice that she repeats some words: She says “You have to love. You have to feel.” More rhythmic and powerful than “You have to love and feel.” She drastically varies the sentence length, from four words to 39. She puts her longest sentence second-to-last, at the climax of the passage. And so on.

For the record: The passage is 103 words long. It averages only 4.0 characters per word and only 11.4 words per sentence. As a result of short words and short sentences, it rates a Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) score of 88.4 – easily readable by high schoolers.

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

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