This week my husband and I took Amtrak to Jupiter, Florida, where we spent two days fishing (and releasing our catch) with a guide. I had bought a Sony Pocket Reader expressly for trips like this one. It’s a lightweight electronic reading device, similar to a Kindle, that can hold plenty of books, saving space and weight in my suitcase.
Turns out I should have saved some of that space for an unabridged dictionary. One of the books I loaded onto my Pocket Reader was an anthology of writings by Oliver Sacks, a neurologist whose articles and books I’ve always enjoyed. In a reminiscence about a patient who’d had sleeping sickness, I came across these three words: oculogyria, palilalic, and coprolalic.
I copied them so that I could look them up at www.Dictionary.com when I returned. “Oculogyria,” it turns out, means “The limits of rotation of the eyeballs.” (There’s a handy word!) “Palilalic” wasn’t listed at all (a Google search shows that it refers to a speech defect in which words are unnecessarily repeated). The last word on my list, “coprolalic,” was misspelled: Dictionary.com listed it as “coprolaliac” and gave the meaning as “scatalogical” (an adjective referring to bathroom humor).
Bad writing. I get the feeling that Sacks, a medical doctor, was showing off, or too lazy to try to make himself clear – or simply didn’t care whether his readers understood him or not. Even worse, his editor didn’t bother to challenge him about those three words.
I came across a similar problem in an article I edited about six months ago: The author had used the word “paremiological,” which again isn’t listed at Dictionary.com. A Google search finally unearthed the meaning. (It’s an adjective referring to proverbs.)
There’s a simple principle that all writers should follow: Make yourself clear.
Which isn’t the same as making yourself sound simpleminded and boring – a false choice that many writers talk themselves into.
In fact I think you could argue that clarity and sophistication should always go together in professional writing. The trick is making yourself understood without regressing into choppy little sentences and oversimplified word choices.
You could go a step further and say that there’s a huge philosophical issue here. Very few ideas are new. How do you make them interesting and fresh?
If this question interests you (and it should), you’re in good company – and I’m not just talking about writers. Suzanne Farrell, the great ballerina from the New York City Ballet, said that her greatest challenge was to make the steps interesting. I’m a dancer myself (ballroom, not ballet), and I know what Farrell was talking about.
But our subject is writing. So how do you make sentences interesting when you’re using a language that’s over a thousand years old? Here are some suggestions:
1. Go ahead and use unfamiliar words, but be careful to define them in the context. Oliver Sacks could have said, “She improvised a variety of coprolaliac limericks that astonished me. Where had this prim woman acquired a gift for bathroom humor?”
2. Use a semicolon now and then. It makes you look brilliant, but it’s no harder to understand than a sentence ending with a period (which is pretty much what a semicolon sentence is). I love semicolons; they add elegance to my writing.
3. Use embedded clauses, as I’m doing here, to combine two ideas. Embedded clauses, when used effectively, work much better than sentences strung together with “and.”
4. Put yourself on a reading program. It’s a great way to absorb sentence patterns; you’ll soon notice the difference in your writing. Thanks to Bartleby.com, which is just a few clicks away, we have instant access to countless great writers.
5. Most important, don’t be fooled into thinking that big words are going to impress readers. It’s foolish to write gloriously coprolaliac limericks – or anything else – if nobody understands what you’re trying to say.