Evans, Harold. Do I Make Myself Clear? Little, Brown, New York, 2017. NF;7/17.
Authors of books on writing take on two things: telling us how to write well, and showing us how. Sir Harold Evans at nearly 90 is one of the most experienced editors in the world. Evans’s leadership has powered The Sunday Times in London and then Atlantic monthly in the US, among many other major newspapers and magazines. And he’s written a pile of books on politics, journalism, and much else, so he should be plenty qualified to perform the dual trick expected here.
He makes sure we understand two ideas: economy in writing helps make the message clear, and its opposite not only muddies the waters, but also causes serious harm.
Evans cites all sorts of quasi-mathematical indices of simplicity in writing, like the fog index invented by a Robert Gunning. It catalogues long sentences, big words, weak (passive) verbs, and abstract words as contributing to failure of clarity. “… is your adjective really really necessary… or is it there for show?” Evans points out after discussing several of these indices that although they are a useful reminder you can score well at them with complete nonsense: you get the same score reading your piece backwards.
So it’s necessary not only to keep your sentences simple but also to arm them with impact. Readability is the quality that makes something written understood by its intended audience, but you also have to hold their attention. Economy works here too: “If something is amusing or sensational there is no need to tell us that it’s amusing or sensational.”
Sir Harold goes on to point out how unreadable writing, especially technical, legal, and government writing, can cause harm. He condemns health insurance fine print among other things as preventing people from getting benefits by being impenetrable. He shows examples of writing he believes is clear and has impact, including a wonderful piece on politician John McCain by David Foster Wallace. Wallace agreed with Evans on bureaucratic writing, pointing out in The Pale King that governments pull the wool over our eyes by submerging us in oceans of incomprehensible screed that finally stops us in our tracks just by boring us to tears.
Whether you think so or not reading this review, I changed my approach to writing and revision after reading Evans’s views on simplicity and economy. It made more of a difference to how I use words to make sentences than The Sense of Style by Pinker did, although I thought Evans wasn’t as much fun to read. Part of my problem was what seemed a bit cranky preoccupation with the harm that writing does, beyond not being readable. It feels to me like he should have stuck to his helpful advice and left the politics to somebody else.
But I’m astonished this guy can still be going strong at 89. 8.8/8.6.