Beauty in Writing
by Elisa Whitlock
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A piece of writing is full of new worlds to explore, new people to meet, and new ideas to encounter. When a reader picks up an author’s work, he gives it his sole attention for a time. During this time the author has a chance to speak to the him, to influence him in whatever way he desires: persuade him to donate to a charity, change his way of thinking about civil rights, bestow information and knowledge, or impart wisdom for trying circumstances. The reader makes himself vulnerable, therefore he is easy to influence. But what is the reader looking for? Annie Dillard, in her book The Writing Life, contemplates the purpose of writing and reading:
If the reader seeks truth and beauty, writers have a serious responsibility. Exactness in writing is important because a writer’s job is to reveal truth and beauty to the reader. If a writer is not exact, then the meaning of the work will likely be misunderstood, and the reader’s view of truth and beauty will end up skewed, or even destroyed. As Christians, this is especially critical. The writer is responsible for conveying truth and beauty; he fails if he misrepresents them. Many definitions of truth and beauty exist, but only one is accurate. Beauty is truth, and truth is beautiful. We discover this beautiful truth when we discover our purpose: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Once we make this discovery, everything else falls into place: the realization of the eternal in our lives, the morals our consciences acknowledge as good, the wonders of Creation, the quality of perfection, the splendor of the redemption of the imperfect.
Even without this realization, we can sense that beauty exists: “For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:20 NIV). This is why we are searching. We will not find truth and beauty simply by looking at the whole world; we have to narrow our scope and pick through our options, even if we must go through a whole world’s worth. Yet there are places and things we know are beautiful: they are our guiding lights. We see beauty in the changing colors of fall, in the twinkle of the stars at night, and in the fall of the rain in a drought. We see it in the geese flying south for the winter, in the squirrel as he gathers his acorns, and in the mare as she gallops across the plains. We see it in the birth of a child, in the laughter between friends, and the kindness shown to a stranger. We also find beauty in exact writing, whether in the quality of the writing itself, or in the message conveyed by the words.
If a reader is searching for “beauty laid bare,” then it is inconsiderate to waste his time with inexact writing that is vague and confusing. He deserves to be offered enlightening material, not just words he has heard dozens of times before. Bernie Belisle, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Bryan College, says exactness in writing is “articulating oneself in written form so that the reader knows precisely what the message is, as well as the intent of the message.” In order to accomplish this, one must be “precise in choice of words, accurate in information, clear in purpose, and concise in structure” (class definition). Precision in word choice requires leaving out generic words such as “like,” “stuff,” “thing,” etc. These words could have any of several legitimate definitions, even in context, therefore the meaning intended by the author is lost to the reader. The writer must also choose words that convey his meaning exactly. In “Politics and the English Language” George Orwell writes, “There is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power” (265). One should avoid using these metaphors; the best method is to create a fresh image that portrays exactly what is meant. Instead of using the phrase “missing the forest for the trees,” for instance, one ought to examine how this particular instance of overlooking the big picture for the details could compare to another, more common occurrence. Using an image never heard before will not only add beauty to a piece of writing, but will also resonate more deeply with the audience. A new image forces him to picture it in his mind, rather than just recalling the meaning in past instances.
The reader also deserves to be presented with accurate information pertinent to the subject. This involves choosing legitimate sources, making sure they are relevant, quoting them correctly, and citing them to avoid plagiarism. Neglecting to do any of these will likely undermine the credibility and integrity of the writer. Even if we have accurate information, if we present a point that seems to have no conjunction to the main point, the reader will be left confused and with a lowered opinion of the author. Using a source such as Wikipedia, or an unknown source that suggests inaccuracy does nothing to support the writer’s case, and also damages his case because the information provided may be considered false. These simple mistakes can damage the audience’s view of beauty just as much as vague words can. The reader can easily believe that what the author presents to him is beauty. Two roads stem from this view: either he will be tricked into thinking this inaccurate work is a good example of beauty, though there are much more beautiful things to be encountered; or he will conclude that if this is beauty, then beauty is almost an illusion, because how could something so basically defective really be beautiful.
Clarity of purpose requires that the writer present his work unambiguously. The meaning should not be hidden under jargon, large, unfamiliar words, or convoluted clauses. The jargon of the Church, often called “Christianese,” is the most dangerous form of jargon that a Christian can fall into. To the believer, words like “salvation,” “grace,” “mercy,” and even “cross” constitute the whole meaning and wonder of the Gospel. To those who have not encountered Jesus, however, these words mean very little. They should not be used unless the audience is familiar with those terms or until the author gives detailed definitions of each, making the meaning clear. Unintentional looping, knotting, and twisting of phrases in writing is bewildering to any reader. This does not benefit the writer in any way because such torturous wording simply makes the reader want to drop the reading, as well as make the meaning indecipherable.
Conciseness means writing in as few words as possible. Conveying a point often does not require many words, so we should use the shortest expression possible to communicate the full point. Succinct wording is easier for the reader to understand and remember. Orwell asserts, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out” (274). The fewer the words, the less complicated the writing, and therefore easier to understand. Also, when we write with fewer words, we often find more beautiful words to use than those found in everyday language that more vividly convey our ideas. Flowery language does not serve to create more beautiful language; instead, it only waters down the image and tries to force the image down our throats.
Achieving this level of exactness does not happen overnight. The first draft of an essay rarely reflects all of these necessities, therefore writers revise their works several times before publishing them. Donald Murray, former editor of Time magazine, says, “Rewriting [. . .] is simply something that most writers find that they have to do to discover what they have to say and how to say it. It is a condition of the writer’s life” (251). Words are a precise, delicate medium. “To shift the structure of a sentence,” novelist Joan Didion observes, “alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed” (95). When one part of a sentence is changed, the rest of the sentence is thrown askew and also demands revision. A domino effect is then set off throughout the rest of the work, because each phrase depends on the ones before and after.
If we neglect exactness in our writing, we run the risk of leading others away from the reality of beauty. When we write vaguely, the reader can make a general interpretation. These broad interpretations tend to fall either too much to the positive or too much to the negative. Either more than what the writer intended will be seen as truthful and beautiful, or much less will be seen as truthful and beautiful; perhaps the reader will even infer that no truth or beauty exists. When we write exactly, however, truth and beauty are properly represented to the audience. This is difficult, but not impossible. Revealing beauty is worth the struggle for exactness.
Belisle, Bernie. Personal Interview. 9 Nov 2009.
Didion, Joan. “Why I Write.” Mercury Reader: Freshman English I & II Bryan College. Eds. Janice Neuleib, Kathleen Shine Cain, and Stephen Ruffus. Boston: Pearson Custom, 2008. 92-98.
Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. New York: HarperPerennial, 1989.
Murray, Donald. “The Maker’s Eye: Revising Your Own Manuscripts.” Mercury Reader: Freshman English I & II Bryan College. Eds. Janice Neuleib, Kathleen Shine Cain, and Stephen Ruffus. Boston: Pearson Custom, 2008. 249-53.
Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” Mercury Reader Freshman English I & II Bryan College. Eds. Janice Neuleib, Kathleen Shine Cain, and Stephen Ruffus. Boston: Pearson Custom, 2008. 262-75.
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Thank you for this beautifully presented instruction! I appreciate not only the way you developed and supported your premise, but modeled it for us with every paragraph. Your words encourage me to pick up writing again after a long, dry period of personal sorrow. God bless you.
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