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.