In the James Brooks’ comedy Broadcast News, the character played by Albert Brooks is on the phone with his news producer. The woman, played by Holly Hunter, also happens to be his friend. At one point, Brooks’ character says, “Okay. I’ll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that one time,” and the joke is that, having been friends for so long, she knows exactly what he means.
In writing, however, we do not have the same assurance that our audience will comprehend our meaning. We want our work to be fluent, confident, and persuasive, but most of all we want it to be understood, while still maintaining our individual voice and style. To that end, there are a couple key elements we must refine so that we can develop the confidence that our readers will follow our message.
For years, I’ve been telling my students that if they learn nothing else before they walk out of my classroom, they should grasp the two most important elements of good writing: precision and clarity. Just as a diamond cutter uses precision in cutting to increase the clarity of a gemstone, writers should approach the writing and editing of their work in a similar fashion.
Precision refers to the idea of saying exactly what you mean. This is largely due to vocabulary. That’s not to say that it’s important to sound smart or knowledgeable or to use the biggest word in the dictionary. What’s important is to use the right word that communicates the specific message you are trying to send. In fact, large or hard to understand words often interfere with our message and confuse or frustrate our readers. In our attempts to sound intelligent, we often alienate our audience. Consequently, I tell my students that each word they learn is a tool in their writer’s toolbox, and that the more words they know (and can use accurately and effectively), the more successful they will be as writers. To paraphrase Mark Twain, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between ‘lightning’ and ‘the lightning bug.’”
Clarity, on the other hand, refers to making your message as clear as it can possibly be. This is achieved largely through having a logical structure for your overall piece of writing, as well as each individual sentence. It also means organizing your thoughts in an organic way that creates a progression of ideas that is clear and natural to the reader. Furthermore, clarity is a function of sentence structure, accurate punctuation, and a well-expressed and specific point. Once again, trying to impress the reader with overly-written or flowery prose will just annoy them and annoying your audience is probably not on your writerly to-do list.
As a thoughtful practitioner of clarity and precision, you can minimize the consequences of poorly-written work. Whether you’re writing your doctoral dissertation, a poem lamenting your recent break-up (you know you’re out there; I have a trunk full of these verses myself), or a note to hang on the fridge telling your significant other that you went to the 7-11 for a cherry Slurpee, employing both precision and clarity will increase your chances of communicating your message effectively and, as a result, getting what you want.
And isn’t that what communication is really all about?
Question: What do YOU feel are the most important elements of good writing?