Interest And Clearness. Continued
In short, a writer's first business in choosing words is to know which ones will arouse interest here and now, and which will not. There is not a man of us who always knows his business at this point. You write a book - do you know just who is going to read it! No, you take your chances. A will be interested by the words you use, B will find them too scientific. All you can do is to make sure that near every hard word there is an easier synonym for it, a word that means nearly the same thing. We all know what sapolio is. Yet we never should have known if Morgan had not been printing the word soap near it for years and years.
Get a grip on the simple human words. A great many of them are of Anglo-Saxon origin. A great many are of French origin. But the test in either case is whether the word is popular in the strict sense of being used by the people. The humanest words are those which are used daily in the home, on the street, in the field, in the shop. The words used by scholars are less human, colder, less interesting. Of course, scientific words are all the time passing into popular usage, and to a mother whose child has been saved from diphtheria the word antitoxin is just as human and interesting as the word love. But it is certain that, to the public, fire is more interesting than conflagration, brave than valorous, building than edifice, house than residence, queer than eccentric, thin than emaciated, fat than corpulent, truthful than veracious, try than endeavor, sharp than acute, lying than mendacious, play than drama.
Some writers prefer learned words on the ground that they are less common and more elegant. Such writers need a change of heart. Sometimes learned words must be used for purposes of precision; occasionally they must be used to soften a painful or unpleasant situation; but it is a mistake to use them because they are uncommon. You want to be common - in the good sense. You want to be as common as bread and light and air. There is nothing more interesting than bread and butter.
Later on we shall consider many other matters - for instance figures of speech - which concern this question of interest. There is no chapter in the book which can avoid the task of seeking out the principles of interest. But perhaps enough has now been said to show that purely mechanical devices can never secure interest. We must begin with the thought-end. We must study human nature in general, and human nature in the particular, and the adaptation of our discourse to particular men in particular situations.
§9. A clear piece of glass is transparent; you see through it; you do not see the glass itself. The same thing is true of a clear piece of writing. If it is perfectly transparent, the reader does not think about the words as words; he sees the thought beyond the words.
A clear style attracts no attention to itself. It is like perfect piano-playing, where the music is just music, and comes to you out of the air. The great pianist does not want you to be thinking about his cleverness while he plays; he wants that melody to seem detached, floating, independent. Afterwards, when you come to think about it, you may praise him for not letting you think about him while he was playing.
Anybody can write English that calls attention to itself. Take a dictionary and choose a string of queer words and fit them into your piece, and people will say, How queer. Twist a sentence into an unusual shape, and they will pause to remark, How twisted! Use a smart expression and they will say, How smart! Be decorative, and they will admire your cleverness. But when we are writing business English, we don't dare be as clever as we can. It distracts attention.
In every chapter of this book we must seek for the principles of clearness. When we make outlines, we want the art of analyzing our thought so well that the order of topics will seem the only possible order. When we study the paragraph, it will be to prevent our reader from asking whether our paragraphs are clear. They should be so well put together that he will never notice it. And so on throughout our course of study.
Clearness is a cooler thing than interest; it is more intellectual. When we ask ourselves, "Just what do I mean? do these words say just what I mean? do they say anything that I do not mean?", we are in a critical mood. We are not trying, directly, to arouse interest.
For example, suppose you are endeavoring to sell a piece of dress-goods. You begin by appealing in some way to the primitive instinct for looking well. Having made sure that your prospective purchaser is interested and wants to look well, you may yet be confronted by questions of clearness. "Is this foulard?" "Yes." "But it feels as if it had cotton in it" "It has, a little." "Then it isn't foulard, because foulard is always silk." The conversation has suddenly got to a difficult place. You know that any dictionary will define foulard as a thin, satiny goods of silk, or silk and cotton. You can go and get a dictionary, and prove it to your customer. If you do, ten to one she will be nettled and go away. That is human nature. As a student of human nature, you ought to have foreseen the danger and prevented it. Your first "Yes" was not quite accurate. You were not clear until the damage was done. You were as clear as the dictionary, but that wasn't quite clear enough.
§ 10. There is an old adage that clear thinking makes clear writing. And it is perfectly true. And perhaps you feel that it is perfectly useless. What use is there in telling a man to run along and think clearly? Thinkers, you say, are born, not produced by a command. Young men in business get tired of the sage advice that is presented to them weekly in the Sunday papers and monthly in the commercial magazines. They are perfectly familiar with it. Be judicious, be tactful, be industrious, be clever, be persevering, be intellectual: in short, go and get yourself born again.
I sympathize with the advice-bespattered youth. But these old saws have their uses - after one has taken a rest from them. "Stop! Look! Listen!" - that railway-crossing sign has saved a good many lives. And maybe the advice to think clearly has done the same. It is perfectly certain that we think more clearly when we are determined, no matter how much pains it costs, to do so.
A word or two about synonyms for clearness. The Latin derivative is perspicuity. Do not confound this with perspicacity, which means the power of seeing through. Perspicuity, clearness, transparency, lucidity, intelligibility all mean the quality of letting sight (or light or thought) through.
The opposites (or antonyms) are vagueness, ambiguity, obscurity, indistinctness, unintelligibility, haziness, etc. An expression is vague when you cannot make out exactly what it means, because it is too general. It is ambiguous when it may mean more than one thing. Taken by itself, every word has more than one meaning. Taken in brief combinations, almost any word is in danger of ambiguity. A fair woman - what does it mean? is she fair to look on, or fair in her dealings? This morning the newspaper refers to Colonel Roosevelt's huskiness. I know that the Colonel is husky in the slang sense of powerful, and I know that he has recently had some little trouble with his throat. I shall have to read further to find out which the paper means. Obscurity is worse than vagueness or ambiguity. It applies to phrases or sentences that fail to convey any meaning.
Clearness and interest are the two great qualities of writing. They are the intellectual and the emotional qualities, always complementary and often inseparable. Interest is the parent of force, power, emphasis, personal quality, individuality. Clearness keeps the force from being wasted. Clearness and interest together give us a good business style.
If you want a definition of style, take Matthew Arnold's: "Style in literature is a certain heightening and recasting of language in such a way as to lend dignity and distinction to it." Well, we are not aiming to produce literature; yet if we can so recast our language as occasionally to give it a little dignity and distinction, we shall get better results even in business. But Arnold's definition leaves out one important thing - the situation. A good business style will have such dignity, such distinction, and such effectiveness as are demanded by the particular situation.