Doris Lessing with a word for writers

Because Doris Lessing received the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, the New York Times reprinted a June 26, 1992 op-ed piece Lessing wrote. I believe the following lines from her essay are just as relevant today as in 1992: “It is one of the paradoxes of our time that ideas capable of transforming our societies, full of insights about how the human animal actually behaves and thinks, are often presented in unreadable language.”

The language is rendered unreadable because we are afraid to say what we mean or we are unsure of what we mean. The piece of advice I find myself repeating to my students over and over again is to show their readers what they mean with crisp illustrations and direct prose. Yet phrases like “Some people might think…” clutter their pages and cloud their points. Cloudy points are safely obscured so that writers cannot be accused of taking a stand.

Lessing explained it well:

“All writers are asked this question by interviewers: ‘Do you think a writer should…?’ ‘Ought writers to…?’ The question always has to do with a political stance, and note that the assumption behind the words is that all writers should do the same thing, whatever it is. The phrases ‘Should a writer…?’ ‘Ought writers to…?’ have a long history that seems unknown to the people who so casually use them. Another is ‘commitment,’ so much in vogue not long ago. Is so and so a committed writer?”

I hereby make a renewed commitment to write lucid prose.


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