Monday, December 2, 2013

Concise writing is usually clear writing (35) – W. Somerset Maugham

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

In his short story “The Alien Corn,” W. Somerset Maugham (pictured) describes the guests at a British country house party. Most of them are members of the social elite. To make the mix of guests more varied and interesting, the hostess has also invited a Jewish businessman and a novelist (the narrator of the short story). The novelist feels awkward and the cosmopolitan, charming businessman comes to his rescue:
“...I felt shy and alone among these Cabinet Ministers, great ladies, and peers of the realm who talked of people of which I knew nothing. They were civil to me, but indifferent, and I was conscious that I was somewhat of a burden to my hostess. Ferdy saved me. He sat with me, walked with me, and talked with me. He discovered that I was a writer and we discussed the drama and the novel; he learnt that I had lived much on the Continent and he talked to me pleasantly of France, Germany, and Spain. He seemed really to seek my society. He gave me the flattering impression that he and I stood apart from the other members of the company and by our conversation upon affairs of the spirit made that of the rest of them, the political situation, the scandal of somebody’s divorce, and the growing disinclination of pheasants to be killed, seem a little ridiculous.”
The situation is probably autobiographical; Maugham received such invitations from artistically pretentious hostesses, and he did his best to endure the events. He probably did not usually have a Ferdy to save him. From the last sentence in the quotation above, we get a sense of the typical conversation. The phrase about pheasants nicely sums up the British elite in eight words, and more subtly than Monty Python would have.

For the record: The passage is 159 words long. It rates a Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) score of 65.3 – approximately as easy to read as Reader’s Digest.

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.

See disclaimer.

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