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Providing Clarity!

Posted on Monday, July 30, 2012 at 8:44 PM

Clear writing that is properly and accurately told.

By Peter P. Jacobi

All too often, when I'm covering a concert featuring contemporary music, I get program notes with explanations by the composers such as this: The work "juxtaposes six kinds of musical mechanism to create a jagged, pulse-dominated structure, forcing them into continuity by the superimposition of separate dynamic and registral schemes," and so forth.

These are program notes, mind you, written to be handed out to an audience including mostly lay listeners. They're close to useless for an attendee, obscure as they are. And they're of very little help to me as I later attempt to describe for folks who weren't there what I heard and why, according to the composer, I heard it. I'm left to divine that for myself.

Similar obscurantism goes on in other fields of knowledge and endeavor, this in our age of ever-increasing separations between professional specialists and consumer generalists. And it's an always present danger to journalism when a writer and editor attempt, often with great difficulty, to interpret for their readers the murky language used by information sources, so that the story is properly and accurately told. Sometimes, we're stymied by what we have to work with.

Maybe those specialists can get away with lack of clarity. We cannot.

Strive to Produce Clarity

That's why I was happy recently when Rod Spaw, a reporter for my local newspaper, The Herald-Times in Bloomington, Indiana, found a way to help me catch up and understand an underway argument about roundabouts, a here-and-there traffic reality that I use but rarely give much thought to. Other folks, living in neighborhoods where additional roundabouts are contemplated, do give the issue quite a lot of thought. Spaw's story made that and more clear to me. Let me quote the first three paragraphs, amounting to a gem of contextual catch-up. They'll clue you in:

"A clash of visions about the future of transportation in Bloomington played out Tuesday in a city council discussion of three roundabouts included in the 2012 city budget proposal.

"One version perceives a diminished need for expansive and expensive street projects as higher prices and scarcer supplies of petroleum push cars to the curb. In such a future, capital spending would prioritize pedestrians, bicyclists, and mass transit and discourage urban sprawl.

"The other vision -- represented by the proposed roundabout designs -- is of a community that grows in fairly traditional, if slower ways and requires continued investment in street infrastructure to move people safely through the community and ease points of congestion for cars, as well as for pedestrians and bicycles."

I appreciate such clarity. As reader, I don't always get it. As writer, I should always strive to produce it.

Clear Understanding = Clear Writing

Justin Gillis of The New York Times gained my appreciation for the way he served up a natural menace that seems to reflect climate change. Following a Wise River, Montana, dateline, Gillis wrote:

"The trees spanning many of the mountainsides of western Montana glow an earthy red, like a broadleaf forest at the beginning of autumn.

"But these trees are not supposed to turn red. They are evergreens, falling victim to beetles that used to be controlled in part by bitterly cold winters. As the climate warms, scientists say, that control is no longer happening.

"Across millions of acres, the pines of the northern and central Rockies are dying, just one among many types of forests that are showing signs of distress these days."

We need to give our readers an understanding that comes from our own clear grasp of the subject and from clear writing to match it.

Simplicity of Expression

The great World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle had that gift. Nearly 60 years after he wrote "A Lovely Day for a Stroll," scene and message are conveyed with crystal clarity. I share with you just a portion of his report:

"I took a walk along the historic coast of Normandy in the country of France. It was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore. Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn't know they were in the water, for they were dead. . . .

"I walked for a mile and a half along the water's edge of our many-miled invasion beach. I walked slowly, for the detail on that beach was infinite.

"The wreckage was vast and startling. . . . There were trucks tipped half over and swamped, partly sunken barges, and the angled-up corners of jeeps, and small landing craft half submerged . . . you could still see those vicious six-pronged iron snares that helped snag and wreck them. . . .

"But there was another and more human litter. It extended in a thin little line, just like a high-water mark, for miles along the beach. This was the strewn personal gear, gear that would never be needed again by those who fought and died to give us our entrance into Europe.

"There in a jumbled row for mile on mile were soldiers' packs. There were socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles, hand grenades. There were the latest letters from home. . . .

"I picked up a pocket Bible with a soldier's name in it and put it in my jacket. I carried it half a mile or so and then put it back down on the beach. I don't know why I picked it up, or why I put it down again."

The simplicity of expression that was Ernie Pyle's, the detail, the ability to determine what needs to be said and how to say it and why is a lesson for us.

I plead for clarity: Rod Spaw's, Justin Gillis's, Ernie Pyle's. In a confused world, clear writing can be our gift of amelioration.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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