Jargon in Writing

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Paul Graham offers some interesting advice on writing, which I am tempted to summarize as, "Don't."

[P]erhaps the best solution is to write your first draft the way you usually would, then afterward look at each sentence and ask "Is this the way I'd say this if I were talking to a friend?" If it isn't, imagine what you would say, and use that instead. After a while this filter will start to operate as you write. When you write something you wouldn't say, you'll hear the clank as it hits the page.
I think this is very good advice for most kinds of writing. Also, I think the ability to put complex issues into plain terms requires (and shows) genuine understanding. That said, I encountered Graham's essay on the heels of reading "The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing" in the Atlantic, and the two lead me to consider the special case of jargon.

I can almost hear someone railing about jargon as such, especially after the Atlantic essay, but that would be almost as wrong-headed as categorically prohibiting long sentences. Jargon, when properly used, achieves the same economy of thought and expression any other vocabulary does. Just as one wouldn't explain what a ham sandwich is in terms even a Martian could understand when ordering one, two experts working in the same field can (and should) use jargon when talking shop.

The key is the context of the audience. Part of conversation is knowing and respecting your partner's context well enough to know which words will get him to a full understanding as efficiently as possible.

-- CAV


Steve D said...

'The mercurial Spaniard himself declared: "After Altamira, all is decadence." '

Stephen King says to remove all unnecessary words. So we can rewrite that as:

Picasso declared: "After Altamira, all is decadence." (Or simplify further by paraphrasing Picasso’s quote)

Both types of advice are similar and lead to a similar outcome.

I am forever editing out big words people like to use like; ‘aforementioned’ so I generally agree with Paul Graham, especially for inexperienced writers, unless there is a good reason to do otherwise.

However, in writing all rules are contextual and writing allows more flexibility to deviate from the simplest path and add flourishes.

For instance, how could anyone not like sentences like these?

‘There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’


‘When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.’

57 and 71 words, respectively, which no one would ever utter verbally unless they were making a direct quote in a speech.

Gus Van Horn said...


"[I]n writing all rules are contextual..."

This reminds me of something a teacher or adult told me when I was very young, to the effect that the great artists "know when to break the rules". I think this was a stab at that idea, but said badly because most people don't explicitly grasp that all rules (as in writing) are contextual. And sometimes, the context does demand deviation, as you show.