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December 6th, 2019
This episode is dedicated to Brandon who you can connect with on Twitter at @brandonbydesign
Clear and simple expression is prized because it communicates ideas efficiently. This plain and clear phrasing has a leverage that often evaporates as word count rises.
These virtues, however, might have embedded within them the traces of a malicious little vice. In order to find this vice, we have to turn our attention to the subject of attention itself.
Our current discussion of attention follows an inverse argument to that of clear and pithy language. In our modern age of distraction, no one seems to have much of an attention span. Everyone claims it’s a bad thing that we have such short attention spans so is it any surprise that we prize the simple pithy communication over the plump verbose elaboration?
Think of the insightful quote or tweet.
These require very little attention and if effective they create a little blip of pleasure before we move on. Good quotes are like jokes in this way. They light up a pathway in our brain that had never before been lit up in exactly that way.
The underlying problem with venerating simple, short and pithy ideas is that the process of being human is far more complex, and we cannot distill knowledge and wisdom down into say a few hundred pithy aphorisms. We all experience a unique context, and the way we bridge our unique perspectives to one another is primarily through language.
Nuance is not achieved by the cute quote or the billboard statement. In order to achieve nuance, we must establish a spectrum upon which subtlety can be demonstrated. And any spectrum in this realm is going to be a context that must be built.
Rome was not built in a day, and no single sentence is claimed to be a masterpiece. Only longer works gain the reputation of a masterpiece and this is because they create a context, through elaboration.
Not only this but we can reapply the observation about attention and tighten the argument. Longer forms of communication, whether it be a poem, an essay, a novel, or an entire cannon – these require the sort of attention span that we currently bemoan the loss of. The reason why is not just literal and practical. Of course with a longer piece of writing, there is literally a longer time required to take in the material. But beyond this, we can clearly state that any great piece of writing is evidence that the writer has paid close and sustained attention in order to come to the conclusions that they seek to convey in writing. The invention of language and writing allows us to follow in their cognitive footsteps, to become aware of the context that makes a particular realization ripe, and then when the new idea is presented, it blooms in that nurturing environment, in the form of a nuanced context – the perspective of the writer.
Clear writing isn’t necessarily about getting the point across in as few words as possible. Clear writing is achieved when we seek to add no more than necessary, while providing all that’s required for someone else to understand.