I have a memory from University I can’t shake…
During a Political Science lecture the professor asked our class to summarize an essay we’d read. The problem was…
No one in the class understood the essay. It read like a 50 page intellectual word salad.
It had all the hallmarks of stilled academic writing: needlessly abstract ideas, page long paragraphs, and an armada of 5 syllable words.
One by one each of us floundered when our name was called. No one could summarize the work.
In a fit of frustration, our professor threw up his hands and said:
“Guys it’s simple; what the author really means is…”
I don’t remember precisely what the teacher said but I do remember a brave classmate raising his hand afterwards and asking:
“Professor. Why didn’t the author explain it simply, like you did?”
Universities across the globe falsely equate complicated writing with good writing. The audience bares the burden. If they can’t understand it then they simply aren’t smart enough to comprehend the lofty concepts being discussed.
The thing is, my classmates and I did understand the ideas. They made sense when expressed in a concise, coherent way. We weren’t too dumb to understand the essay; the author was simply unwillingly to write in a way people could grasp.
Writing is communication through the written word. It exists to express and clarify ideas. When done properly those ideas should be comprehensible to your reader.
It is a two way street. There is an author writing, and an audience member reading the work… presumably one who is interested in the ideas you want to get across.
That’s why stuffy writing is so self-serving. It brings attention to itself and its author while ignoring the ideas it should champion.
This is not a call for bland or dumbed down writing. If you have a distinct voice, use it. Give in to the flourishes that make you unique.
But do so in service of your audience. Let them join your journey as willing participants and not as bewildered hostages like myself and classmates.
Be generous. Write with the audience in mind.