Thursday, April 15, 2010

Don't write for geniuses. Write for readers.

I like a reading challenge once in a while. And I like helping my kids (a little) with their English, writing, reading and literature assignments. But I wasn't prepared for this.

My high school sophomore asked me to read – or more precisely, to help him comprehend -- a 10-page scholarly literary essay he was assigned to read about The Catcher in the Rye. I barely made it through three pages. In those first three pages, I found nearly a dozen words I have never seen. That’s okay, I enjoy learning new words. But what bothered me was that I couldn’t even begin to guess at their meaning – not even a little bit from context, and not from the word itself, not a clue, not even a hint of a common Latin root.

The author had also included no less than 10 literary, film and cultural references in those three pages – I knew and could explain only five, and the other five had us running to the dictionary, the web and my 84-year-old mother who knows the complete script of most 1940s movies. Don’t get me started on the overlong sentence lengths and foreign spellings. And did I mention the proliferation of dashes, colons, semi-colons, and parentheses?

In between all of this scurrying about, scratching our heads and sighs of frustration, I wondered: what was the writer thinking? When a piece of writing – especially one which is supposed to help shed light on something, to help people understand a text which may be confusing -- is itself so obscure, so overwrought with $25 words, so clearly intended to showcase nothing but the writer’s overinflated sense of superiority, then who is it serving? Certainly not the reader. My son told me his chemistry teacher once said: The only reason to design a test a genius can’t pass is to prove you can design a test that a genius can’t pass. Or, as Holden might have put it: "What a phony."

Writers, let’s all take note and vow to keep it simple. Or at least comprehensible.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what "scholarly literary essay" means, but I suspect the author wrote the piece for a specific discourse community--a community with its own standards.

I don't think it's fair to criticize the standards of a particular discourse community, whether it be a scholarly journal, a "scholarly literary essay," literary nonfiction, etc.

Lisa Romeo said...

A fair point, of course. I did think about that.

But in this case it seemed that the writer's intention was to help mostly students who are not yet as well-researched, scholarly and perhaps not as intelligent as he (I'm clearly in this category!), to understand the subject matter; not to lecture above their heads.

On the other hand, as you indicate, it could have been the piece was originally intended only for an audience of like-minded others who could have read it with no problem. In which case my beef then is with the assignment, not the writer.

Thanks for your comment.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by one of my favorite writers . . . E. B. White. He said that when he was a fledgling reporter and trying to write a story, he was so busy trying to make it sound good he made it nearly unintelligible. An editor told him, "Just say the words." That's something I try to remember.