Monday, February 24, 2014

Concise writing is usually clear writing (37) – John Derbyshire

The controversial mathematician, author and essayist John Derbyshire (pictured) provides a good example of concision and clarity in this response to a reader’s point:

• Reader’s point: Seems you really don’t want to associate with NAMs.  [I.e. Non-Asian Minorities, 32.9 — JD]
• Author’s reply:     Let me tell you who I want to associate with: people like me.
What’s the criterion for “people like me”? Obviously it isn’t race, or I would have made a different choice of marriage partner [Mr. Derbyshire’s wife is Chinese — Mr. C.]. Obviously it isn’t nationality, or I would never have left my home country [He moved from the United Kingdom to the USA — Mr. C.]. It’s not religion, either: my friends run the gamut from High Church Anglican to Falun Gong. It isn’t even politics: my wife, most of our neighbors, and several of my friends, are political liberals.
The criterion, as nearly as I can pin it down, is: I want to associate with bourgeois people — people whose have bourgeois attitudes and behaviors.
It would, it seems to me, be absurd to avoid association with any individual person because of some accidental quality like race (or nationality, or height, or education, or religious confession, or political affiliation). On the other hand, I would prefer to live my life as far away as possible from people who take illegal drugs, or practice promiscuous sexual behavior, or use bad language in ordinary speech, or don’t consider industrious support of self and family to be an important value, or are uninterested in the glories of Western Civilization, or break the law often enough to make themselves interesting to the police.
Plenty of NAMs are bourgeois, and plenty of non-NAMs are non-bourgeois. The regrettable fact is, though, that the proportion of bourgeois among NAMs is way lower than among non-NAMs — look at the crime statistics. If I practice generalized NAM avoidance, that is the reason. For example, I want my kids to grow up with bourgeois values. My judgment is, that they are more likely to do so if educated in schools with not too many NAM students. (My local high school is actually 35 percent NAM, which is a tad more than I’d like, but the best I can do on my income. Low-NAM school districts, like other much-desired goods of limited supply, are expensive [32.8].)
To judge from the data in my education chapter [122.9 etc.], my preferences in this regard are shared by most Americans. I certainly don’t see anything wrong with such preferences. If you think there’s something wrong with them, tell me what it is. Then, go tell the couple of hundred million Americans who, to judge by patterns of voluntary residential and educational segregation noted in by book, share my preferences.

Analysis: The reader misstated Mr. Derbyshire’s preferences and insinuated his disagreement with the misstated preferences, so Mr. Derbyshire took pains to restate his preferences. His preferences are complex but he stated them clearly and concisely. Then he politely challenged the reader to state (as opposed to insinuate) his disagreement:

If you think there’s something wrong with [my preferences], tell me what it is.

Please keep in mind that this is a blog about clear writing. When I select samples for this blog, it is because the writing is especially clear (or especially unclear). Any opinions expressed in samples are irrelevant to my purpose here. I’m not pushing opinions; I’m pushing clear writing.

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 scatterbrain 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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