Recently I quoted a beautiful example of concise, clear writing from the short story “The Alien Corn,” by W. Somerset Maugham (pictured). In a later passage in the same work, a professional pianist is playing for the guests at a British country house party. The narrator says:
“She played Bach. I do not know the names of the pieces, but I recognized the stiff ceremonial of the frenchified little German courts and the sober, thrifty comfort of the burghers, and the dancing on the village green, the green trees that looked like Christmas trees, and the sunlight on the wide German country, and a tender cosiness; and in my nostrils there was a warm scent of the soil and I was conscious of a sturdy strength that seemed to have its roots deep in mother earth, and of an elemental power that was timeless and had no home in space.”
This brief passage (only 103 words) gives the reader a description of Germany during Bach’s lifetime (1685-1750). It is fiction, so it may or may not be historically accurate; however, it clearly is compelling. It is loaded with specifics. It appeals to multiple senses.
Although the sentences are long, the passage still rates a Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) score of 60.2 – approximately as easy to read as Reader’s Digest. Maugham makes clear, concise writing look easy, but of course it isn’t.
The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least 10 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.