Friday, December 6, 2013

Psychological roots of writers’ resistance to clarity

Most lawyers disregard the most useful principle of advanced writing: put new important matter at the sentence end (the stress position). This neglect itself provides insight into the nature of the resistances to clear professional and intellectual writing.

We should first be exact about the degree to which writing authorities ignore the stress position. Bryan Garner represents the mainstream, and he cites six other authorities for this advice: “To write forcefully, end sentences with a punch.” (The Winning Brief, Tip 36.) Garner concretizes his advice in an injunction against ending sentences with a date, citation, client’s name, or qualifying phrase. (Garner, perplexingly, also suggests the test of exaggerating the last word in each sentence while reading aloud. “If the reading sounds foolish then the sentence probably needs to be recast.” Garner’s emphasis on how the sentence sounds will prove instructive, but even anticipating that Garner’s test will misidentify many bad sentences as good, it will also misidentify good sentences as bad—simply because the stress position is more extensive than the final word.)

Garner understates the importance of emphasis by limiting stress-position errors to missed opportunities; he ignores the more important errors of misdirection—as do his six supporting authorities. Emphasis is underappreciated (unemphasized) by most authorities; distinguishing the important from the unimportant is central to grasping meaning, never itself exact but capable only of approximation. Why is it hard to understand that misleading emphasis compromises not just “forcefulness” but clarity?

Since clarity arises from emphasis, forcefulness is clarity. Here may lay the problem: the quest for clarity is inevitably imbued with the human ambivalence toward exercise of power—of which influence is a kind.

Writing aspiring to clarity and to apportioned emphasis—regardless of whether it succeeds in either—is often termed “formal”; yet defining formality has proven elusive. One recent attempt is found in James W. Pennebaker’s book The Secret Life of Pronouns, which distinguishes from the analytic and narrative writing styles a formal style. But Pennebaker is able to characterize formality only pejoratively: humorless, pompous, and stiff; Pennebaker finds formal style correlated with aspirations to social status. The associations in Pennebaker’s work between clarity and power are striking: influence, status, emphasis, forcefulness, pomposity, even “stiffness.” Pennebaker expresses human ambivalence to power by defining “formal” writing by its failures.

Expressing this same ambivalence, writers who seek that variety of power called intellectual influence confront emotional impediments to mastering formal writing (“classic prose”). Resistance to recognizing the stress-position’s importance—stress or emphasis equaling force or power—epitomizes this internal conflict. Imprecision stimulates the affiliative appetite for conversation, a taste writers seeking legal persuasiveness or intellectual influence must forgo.

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