Writers Talk About Writing
Clear and Concise Writing: The Audel Guides
Clear and concise, concise and clear: these are two universal watchwords of good writing. Rightly so, for we writers slave at our desks hoping that readers will get what we're trying to say with as little fuss or fog as possible. Writing is a window; it can only help us to keep it sparkling clean.
Clarity and concision, however, are not always paramount values. Can we wish that Henry Fielding had written:
Let's hope for a pretty day in June, with gentle breezes blowing from the west and blossoming flowers filling whole fields.
— instead of:
Do thou, oh sweet Zephyrus, rising from thy fragrant bed, mount the western sky, and lead on those delicious gales, the charms of which call forth the lovely Flora from her chamber, perfumed with pearly dews, when on the first of June, her birthday, the blooming maid, in loose attire, gently trips it over the verdant mead, where every flower rises to do her homage, 'till the whole field becomes enamelled, and colors contend with sweets which shall ravish her most.
No! Given his love of extravagant word painting, Fielding writes as concisely as he can.
Theodore Dreiser was famous for his pinpoint pictures of prosaic places, here a shirt factory in upstate New York:
Row after row of porcelain tubs...reached from one exterior wall to the other. And in these, under steaming hot water, were any quantity of those webs he had seen upstairs, soaking. And nearby, north and south of these tubs, and paralleling them for the length of this room, all of a hundred and fifty feet in length, were enormous drying racks or moving skeleton platforms, boxed, top, bottom, and sides, with hot steam pipes...
—An American Tragedy
— but he could also be vague; this sentence is typical of many:
Now because of a somewhat related mood toward life and its vagaries, Professor Arnold was gradually attracted to Isobel.
Four of these nineteen words — somewhat, mood, vagaries, and gradually— have fuzzy meanings. Strip them away, and the sentence changes markedly:
Because of similar beliefs, Professor Arnold was attracted to Isobel.
The same "A causes B" logic underlies both sentences, but the stark logic of the second rings false; "Life's not that cut and dried," I think as I read. Dreiser's fuzzy qualifiers, in contrast, give his sentence a fuzzy logic true to the laws of nature and to the mysteries of the human heart.
If we may call the verbose Fielding concise and the vague Dreiser clear, it's time to take a closer look at these two watchwords and see what they mean for writers.
The clearest and most concise writing I know comes from a treasure on my bookshelf, an Audels Carpenters and Builders Guide #1 that I found decades ago in a musty old bookstore in Mendocino, California. I lived a few miles down the coast at the time, and as my long-haired, Luddite pals and I got our hands dirty building our cabins and our compost heaps, Audels, subtitled "A Practical Illustrated Trade Assistant on Modern Construction for Carpenters, Joiners, Builders, Mechanics and All Wood Workers, became a Bible we trusted as we did the I Ching and The Whole Earth Catalog.
Theo Audel & Co, with offices on West 23rd Street, New York City, first published Carpenters and Builders Guide #1 in 1923 (my copy is a 1947 reprint), one of a long line of Audels Guides to mechanical and engineering crafts. Carpenters and Builders #1 is a handsome small book with a soft pebbly black cover and red-edged yellow pages, a pleasure to hold in one's hand. The "Outline of Chapters" moves logically from basics — "Woods," "Nails," "Screws" — to fine points — "How to Use the Steel Square," "Cabinet Making." Each page blends neat blocks of text with finely etched illustrations and mathematical tables. A quick flip through its pages reveals a vast storehouse of information from "The Holding Power of Spikes" to "How to Put in Lag Screws." The title page lists Frank D. Graham, a Princeton professor, as chief author and Thomas J. Emery as his associate, but I'm convinced the pair must have had a small army at their command.
Graham and Emery build clarity and concision deep into Audels. Everything will be described "in practical, concise language," they declare on the title page; in the Foreword they promise "to give technical trade information in concise, accurate, plain language." From the first sentence on page one:
Wood.—This is one of the most common building materials and a general knowledge of the structure and characteristics of the various woods used in building is an absolute necessity to the carpenter.
— they deliver. Here are a sample few sentences chosen nearly at random:
Most nails are made of steel wire. The grade of steel used is known as low carbon Bessemer or basic open hearth.
A wood screw is a screw nail, having a right hand coarse thread to give a good grip, a gimlet point to enter the wood, and a slotted head for the reception of a screwdriver.
Sand paper consists of tough paper covered with finely crushed abrading material.
English prose seldom gets this clear and concise except in instruction books. Inserted into fiction's varied flow of voices, Audels' "Only the facts, ma'am" style can sound stilted, as does Raymond Chandler's description of lost wax casting in The High Window:
A small opening is left from the wax to outside by attaching a steel pin, which is withdrawn when the cement sets. Then the crystabolite casting is cooked over a flame until the wax boils out through this small opening, leaving a hollow mold of the original model. This is clamped against a crucible on a centrifuge and molten gold is shot into it by centrifugal force from the crucible.
Readers don't want a steady diet of clarity and concision. They love the adornments of writing, imaginative metaphors and literary allusions, witty dialogue and windy digressions. They don't mind puzzling over a dense paragraph if they can dig a pearl out of the oyster, and they love a good joke even when muddled in the telling:
...he asked me where Moses was when the candle went out. I said I didn't know; I hadn't heard about it before, no way.
"Well, guess," he says.
"How'm I going to guess," says I, "when I never heard tell of it before.
"But you can guess, can't you? It's just as easy."
"Which candle?" says I.
"Why, any candle," says he.
"I don't know where he was," says I; "where was he?"
"Why, he was in the dark! That's where he was!"
"Well, if you knowed, what did you ask me for?"
"Why, blame it, it's a riddle...."
—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Yet stripping writing down to naked clarity and concision is good exercise for any writer. Instead of adornment, plain writing offers the abiding strength of plain truth — who will ever deny that sandpaper is "tough paper covered with finely crushed abrading material"? Along with accurate facts Graham and Emery's vigorous prose conveys a vigorous philosophy, a confident belief in our ability to shape the world to our liking. Their clear, concise writing encourages clear, concise thought and action. Read the Guide, says every crisp sentence, and you'll be able to make chairs, tables and houses that are as foursquare, useful, and long-lived as the Guide itself. "By hammer and hand all things do stand," the authors run as a motto across the top of the title page, and in case the motto doesn't, dare I say, hammer their point clearly home, they nail it with a concise quotation from John Ruskin:
"When we build, let us think that we build forever... a time is to come when these stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and men will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, "See! This our father did for us."