Write Brightly, but with Restraint

As writers, we want to create strong mental pictures and evoke powerful emotions. Even if your writing is prescriptive rather than narrative, you want to give readers a clear idea of your concepts.

☐ The writing is illuminating and vivid.

The foundation of vivid writing is strong nouns and verbs. People doing things. The next important element is using precise words. It’s one thing to write about a girl riding a horse. It’s another to write about a twelve-year-old waif riding an elegant palomino.

illuminating writing
Photo by cosma • Fotolia

Clear prose will light up a subject so the reader understands it clearly. The opposite of clear prose is the kind of bafflegab often produced by government agencies such as the Federal Reserve:

Alan Greenspan: The FOMC stands prepared to maintain a highly accommodative stance of policy for as long as needed to promote satisfactory economic performance.

Now those look like some specific words, but they are not illuminating. The Fed trusts that the only people paying attention are journalists, economists, and other wonks who are willing to wade through their verbosity to figure out what they mean.

Luckily, those journalists are tasked with illuminating FedSpeak:

Adam Davidson: I speak central banker.… What he’s technically saying is he’s going to keep the fed funds rate … at the absurdly low level of 1%. And that sends a message to every investor in the world: You are not going to make any money at all on US treasury bonds for a very long time.

For the whole story, see the transcript of “Return To The Giant Pool of Money.”

If you’re writing for the general market, strive to write more like Davidson and less like Greenspan.

But for some novice writers, obtuse prose isn’t the problem. The problem is in striking a balance between writing vivid, engaging prose and overwriting—that is, trying too hard.

☐ The author avoids flowery or “purple” prose, as well as clichés, recycled phrases, and unnecessarily repeated words.

The admonition against flowery or “purple” prose is mainly for writers of genres other than narrative nonfiction. In memoir, especially if one is striving for a literary effect, rich, poetic language can serve you well if you have the chops to pull it off. The problem is that many new writers who aim for a high-flown “literary” style suffer a double risk. First, they sound inauthentic, which is deadly in a memoir. Second, they fail to master the nuances, and their prose falls flat.

If you do go for verbal ostentation, beware of going overboard. Poetic prose, like perfume, can become overwhelming when used to excess. You don’t want to overpower people with the flowery scent of your prose. Use it in small doses.

Stick with your natural tone and you are far more likely to succeed. For more on what purple prose is and when it might actually work, see my Elements of Fiction article “Avoiding cliches and purple prose.”

As I said there, the most important point about your writing voice is this:

☐ The voice is consistent.

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  1. Here, here, Kristen. Great article. A lot to take to heart here.

  2. […] When writing for a general audience, we want to ensure that the language we use is clear—the opposite of the kind of bafflegab we looked at earlier. […]

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