Saturday, November 5, 2011

"Plain talk" writing: The new literary obfuscation

“Plain-talk” writing has replaced pretentious writing as the main stylistic mannerism impeding thought. More than a half century ago, George Orwell identified vague abstraction and stale imagery as contributors to political bedevilment: they are the means for making the vile acceptable by concealing its substance. The object of Orwell’s scorn hasn’t disappeared. Politicians and their sycophants still substitute high-flown cliché for penetrating depiction, but that form of literary dishonesty is, today, overshadowed by the abuse of cognitive fluency—by the cult of simplicity. This mode’s mainstay is the non-sequitur; its object of concealment, logical irrelevance; its mechanism, the short, plain sentence. When the new obfuscation becomes pedagogy, writing teachers present its virtue as that of writing as you talk; they call the style “conversational.” It demonstrates that concreteness and vagueness are entirely compatible.

Everyone knows you can’t write efficaciously the same as you talk. So, common sense revises the plain-talk project—using the simple and illogical expressional methods the advocates purvey. A writing blog, CopyBlogger, advises—to the applause of commenters—“Write like you talk, except better. Better words, better arrangement, better flow.” As if this advice were informative.

As a rule, no examples are given, and some of this style’s most ardent practitioners may deny their practice of “writing as you talk.” Writing teacher Wayne Schiess responded to Dr. George D. Gopen’s disparagement of this advice by calling his argument a straw man. Wayne had never heard this advice.

Blogger Luke Muehlhauser provides the rare express example of writing as you talk, and his example ably, if unwittingly, demonstrates how this approach to writing undermines lucid thought: (1), below, is Muehlhauser’s rendition of how a writer would ordinarily state a thought; (2) is Muehlhauser’s recommended rewriting, designed to combine the clarity of writing with the readability of talk:
(1) Perhaps the toughest intellectual work we must do regarding European reconstruction is to realize that it can be achieved through nonpolitical instrumentalities. Reconstruction will not be politics, but engineering.
(2) We have a tough job ahead of us. We need to figure out how to reconstruct Europe. It won’t happen with political forces. The European reconstruction will be a matter of engineering, not politics.
The plain-talk version, (2), is more cognitively fluent than is (1): it deftly hides the contradictions and vagueness baldly evident in (1). First, reference to “instrumentalities” in (1) impels readers to seek to identify them and calls readers’ attention to the merely negative characterization of the “instrumentalities” as “nonpolitical.” Second, the reader of (1) naturally demands to know how “we” are supposed to act through “nonpolitical instrumentalities,” when “politics,” after all, denotes our means for consciously coordinating the actions of numerous persons. Third, if realizing that Europe can’t be reconstituted through politics requires tough intellectual work (it actually was reconstructed through the very political Marshall Plan) the writer isn’t entitled to announce the conclusion in advance of the required work. These objections, occurring naturally to the reader of (1), make that version clear but hard to read. The reader tries to make sense of it, in the face of signals that (1) is false, and readers find known falsehood harder to understand than probable truth.

The “plain-talk” version, (2), expresses the same information contained in (1). The difference is that the clauses in (2) are poorly connected. Although (2) urges readers to figure out how “we” can reconstruct Europe, the inconceivability of collective action being nonpolitical is pushed from the foreground by replacing nonpolitical instrumentalities, through which we act, with nonpolitical forces, which happen. Furthermore, the unexpressed connection between, on the one hand, the conclusion about Europe’s nonpolitical reconstruction and, on the other, the intellectual work from which the conclusion follows, hides absurdity, that of announcing in advance a conclusion of work undone.

The integration fostered by (1)’s concision fosters skepticism of its flawed reasoning. The disjointed “conversational” style of (2) makes the flawed reasoning easier to overlook. Whether Muehlhauser prefers this outcome is unclear.


  1. Nice post. I voiced similar objections to Luke and Fyfe's presentation of desirism. They would constantly wield this generic "we" as a normative weapon -- ironically while denying desirism's reliance on the "hypothetical observer" -- and then shun dissenters because "we" have "reason to condemn" them.

    Anyways. Cheers.

  2. Interesting connection, as I had thought the example was only a question of rhetoric.

    I hope to write something on morality soon, in another blog, Juridical Coherence. ( I take moral "anti-realism" almost as a given. The problem I want to address is how can something _inherently_ unreal seem to have so many practical uses.

  3. The Juridical Coherence essay mentioned above is posted: "Why do what you "ought"?—A habit theory of explicit morality."

  4. Whether or not clauses in an argument are poorly connected is a matter of the audience and audience's assumed background info. I could laboriously devise an eloquent, well-connected paragraph, but if presented to a genius who already knew the ins and outs of my topic, it would all be time-wasting fluff. And for folks uneducated in the topic at all, some of the connecting materials might themselves be too complicated to penetrate easily, making an intimidating read. My guess (with no supporting data) is that Muehlhauser's style is on-average best (meaning for an audience of wide distribution of prior knowledge, that format does the best job of trading off connective fluff with ideas worth unpacking later). I doubt Muehlhauser (or other advocates) would seriously claim this writing style is always appropriate. But it is often appropriate.

    1. That's exactly where we disagree. When the audience has a weaker background, the writer should explain more, decreasing the _density_ of ideas ( ), not the _complexity_ of language. (That's the solution when you're writing for children, which is entirely different because of their limited *linguistic* development.) When writing for educated adults, there's no excuse for sacrificing language's full expressive power .