What Is the Right Level?

The world of nonfiction covers a vast array of writing styles. On the popular end, the can-do book is filled with “we” and “you,” encouraging the reader to sign on board. On the academic end, the prose is filled with subject-specific jargon, since those who don’t understand it aren’t the audience anyway. With the general trend toward simplification of prose, odd mixtures of styles crop up more frequently. Is this movement a freeing or lowering of standards?

The grammatical term at work here is “level of diction.” An author determines how formal their language will be. The decision is based on the reading audience. A how-to book tries to be colloquial. By using terms that everyone employs, the text makes the reader feel included among all the sufferers from whatever problem the book is tackling. Imprecision in language is entirely the point.

This level is inappropriate for an author who wishes scholarly acclaim. I’ll leave academic journals and other discipline-specific matter aside, using as the limit of formality those books published by distinguished mainstream publishers such as Basic and Free Press. These books still have footnotes, employ quotations from other authors, and make sophisticated arguments that the average Joe will not be able to follow.

Falling in between these two camps are a number of books that want both: popular appeal and serious subject matter. The authors by and large are highly intelligent, professors or doctors or the like. They apparently have rubbed shoulders with Joes only in passing on subways, because their writing veers oddly between concise and slang. The effect is jarring and, during the process of enduring pages of such swings, eventually counterproductive. I still may not understand the argument, and the loose language erodes my faith that the author has fully researched the truth.

A serious topic does not need the language of the street to embrace a wider reading public. If you have any doubt, read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. These two were some of the most intelligent people to walk the planet, but you understand every one of their points. Simplicity is a virtue, but elegant simplicity is the product of hard work.

Colloquial language is very often lazy writing. The author thinks to “dumb down” the prose, assuming the popular reader doesn’t mind vague expressions and clichés. But extra verbiage and shortcuts waste everyone’s time. If you want to get down with the masses, how about starting with some sympathy for what they do not know?

Exercise: When you are reviewing the manuscript, look carefully for loose prose. Stop each time and ask yourself: is there a more precise yet still simple way to make the point? What this practice will teach you is that you have to substitute three and four times before you reach the word or expression fraught with the sort of tension that makes readers want to understand more.

“He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense.”
—Joseph Conrad

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.