Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Clarity and work

It occurs to me that discussions of "clarity" usually implicitly hinge on the following assumption:
Difficulty for the writer means ease for the reader; ease for the writer means difficulty for the reader.
This is why accusations that writing is unclear so often devolve into accusations of authorial laziness, and why defenses of dense writing so often hint that the aggrieved readers are lazy. This is why the discussion so easily becomes moralistic. (Work is after all a moral category.)

It isn't at all clear to me (modernist that I am) that it is easy to write dense prose, though. How does it change the discussion about clarity, if we bracket the above premise?


SEB said...

Interesting question here. My sense is that this idea (about difficulty and ease) is not about ease of execution; rather, I think it's about ease of comprehension. It's axiomatic (in the Chicago LRS system of teaching writing, which is where I'm coming from) that a first draft is difficult for a reader to comprehend, not because it's dense (necessarily) but because it's written for the author, rather than for the reader. The same thing that makes it easy for the author to comprehend makes it difficult for the reader. By contrast, it's not obvious to me that dense writing is easy to execute for the author. So to me, there's a bit of a gap there. But more to the point, I'm having a little trouble imagining how to talk about clarity without invoking the reader's ease. Hmm. Have to think about this some more.

Natalia said...

I'm less interested in talking about clarity without talking about the reader's ease (that's almost the definition of clarity, isn't it?) than about disarticulating discussions of clarity/obscurity from assumptions about how much work the author put in, and the moral overtones that such assumptions carry. Clarity isn't always a good index of work.