For writers, the fashionable dictum of our times is: Keep it short and keep it simple. Fewer words, inclusive styles and conversational vocabulary are readability mantras that writers use as editing guidelines for the first draft. As with every evolution this journey too has many reasons; all satisfyingly, argument worthy. High on my list are the democratization of both writing and reading and, the end-of-century dominance of the ‘American way’ in all things life and living. After all, writability is hardly worth pursuing when the game is one of numbers and anti-anti elitism is the new exclusive club.
What came first is yet another chicken and egg conundrum. Did reading styles, that skim and speed read for take home points, devalue the exercise of crafting a good sentence? Or did the proliferation of writing, as wrap for a couple of readable comments, bring out our closet speed reader? However that argument resolves itself is not relevant to the generally accepted notion that much writing today is driven by the urge to opinionate, not interrogate. Ultimately, canonical faith needs to persuade in simple and familiar language if it wants to propagate belief.
“Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died’ don’t say ‘Mortality rose’”. Famous pithy takes on writing like this quote from the redoubtable CS Lewis, are unfortunately used to make the case that words of more than seven to nine letters make for ponderous prose. It is true that deconstructing highfalutin concepts to comprehensible prose is a fundamental need for the popularization of academic subjects. It is equally true that simplistic prose in commentary cannot hope to stimulate anything more than simple thought. This is proven, without much effort, by the visible degeneration of Opinion columns to little more than, ‘have opinion will write’ drivel.
A writer who breaks this mould is Pratap Bhanu Mehta. His column in the Indian Express is a joy to read not only for the content of his thought, but also, for the style with which he articulates it. Almost every sentence manages the feat of being both scaffold for its kin and a stand alone quotable. His latest in the paper does not fail expectations. Writing on the flaws of the UPA as a cautionary tale for the new government; it is counsel that we would, each of us, do well to read and emulate in our own spheres of influence.
As tongue in cheek response to my own griping and as annoyed counter to a friend’s use of the word ‘pedant’, and also, with apologies to fans of new age wisdom; I have paraphrased his words to fit the standards of ready reckoner readability.
- Institutions sustain and enrich our lives. Whether in our personal and professional relationships or in our daily interaction with impersonal systems like the Law; it is worth remembering that each one of us is a cog in the wheel. We need to work on the wheel in order to make it turn and spin our way. Expectations always stand second in line behind responsibilities.
- It is more important to be credible than clever. Without the credibility of belief and/or action; argumentation, however cleverly spun, will fall flat.
- Plan for the long-term. The short-term is but a rung in the ladder that can be adjusted for height. You don’t have to win every battle. Let go of a few; but (and this is an important but) let go with the clear foresight of a purpose bigger than the moment.
- Confidence in self can degenerate, without warning, to intellectual sloth. Channel confidence to build credibility. Validation is a virtuous cycle.
- Nurture criticism without rancour. Without honest feedback, you are trapped in an echo chamber where all you will do is wither and fade.
- Communicate to get to power. Communicate to stay in power. Communicate to rise in power. In short; communicate. No one is born a mind-reader. Very few study to be mind readers and then, they often get it wrong.
- Never underestimate the power of error. Or, the power of others who will drum up your errors for their gain. A rise into grace is never as spectacular as a fall from it.
With this effort, I am assured that all clamour for dour, bulleted, get-to-the-chase prose is doused and that you, my dear reader, have fled this page to the delights of his own meticulously crafted one.