Pretentious, inflated, indulgent writing is bad. Always.

I don’t like to speak in absolutes when it comes to writing, partly because I’m not a fan of rules. For every writing rule I hear, a successful rule-breaker comes to mind.

However, with absolute certainty, I can declare that wordy, pretentious writing is bad. If a sentence has 90 stuffy words when it only needs 25 short ones, it’s bad writing. If a writer is trying to impress us with his expensive-looking vocabulary instead of informing, entertaining, or touching our souls, it’s bad writing.

Wordy, pretentious writing is only acceptable as satire. Or when I use it as an example in a blog post, because everything I do is dripping with cool.

Elmore Leonard: an unpretentious writer who never wastes words.

Elmore Leonard: an unpretentious writer who never wastes words.

In practical terms, I majored in public relations (though that is not what my school called it). On the scale of popular perception, PR people are somewhere above politicians and serial killers, uncomfortably close to used-car salesmen, and looking directly up at the girl from Macy’s who sprays perfume on you without asking (Don’t worry, she’s wearing pants, not a skirt).

But PR people did teach me a lot about writing. If I can boil their writing instruction down to two words (which is exactly the kind of thing that would make them proud), it’s “write tight.”

Meanwhile, in more traditional areas of academic study, where the professors sport bushy beards (even the women) and have been wearing the same moth-eaten suit jackets for 37 years, the writing motto seems to be, “Obfuscate a conflation of explanation, implication, and interpretation through profligate verbosity and wanton clause abuse.”

I once ruffled a professor’s plumage by mocking a rambling, incoherent article we were forced to read. By “read,” I mean stare at the first 900-word paragraph (which also served as the opening sentence) until my eyes glazed over.

When Hitch said, "Always make the audience suffer as much as possible," he wasn't talking to writers.

When Hitch said, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible,” he wasn’t talking to writers.

The professor said, “But this is college-level writing, you must understand.”

And I said, “Indeed. It’s also bad writing. I have the intellectual firepower to understand the article, but I don’t have the patience to read something that is deliberately made obscure by someone more interested in waving her Ph.D. around than she is in conveying meaning.”

My point was not well received.

I bring this up because I just started reading a book on Alfred Hitchcock, the intent of which is to examine how his films reflect a British expatriate’s view of American culture. Now, I know going in that I’m going to get inflated, pretentious writing; film historians cannot help themselves. Still, what is the point of deliberately obscuring one’s point? Here is a quote from the introduction:

“Film offers not only, as critics since Benjamin have been reminding us, a radically new form of apprehension for a radically new kind of audience – one organized by the logic of the mass, in Benjamin’s influential terms – but also a new way of thinking about the powers of visual representation at the moment of modernity.”

Gah! Why is this sentence 55-words long? Why is it composed in such an awkward, impenetrable manner?

Why not say it this way?

“Critics since Benjamin have pointed out that film is the first medium with a mass audience and reflects the apprehension of the time in which it was created – the moment we became a modern society. This is why the power of visual representation is so ripe for analysis.”

I shaved seven words, broke it into two sentences, and, if I may be so bold, made it far easier to digest. Sure, we could all read and, after a couple of passes, understand the other version, but why make me trip over bloated, awkward sentences on my way to finding the meaning? I don’t care what your diploma says; bad syntax is bad syntax.

If you plan to write a scholarly tome on an academic subject, I have two bits of advice.

1. Leave the deconstruction to Picasso.

2. Write tight.

So what are your thoughts? Do you find wordy academic writing to be sentence shrapnel, like I do? Or am I just a simpleton with a low-wattage mind? Maybe you just enjoy free-form word art!

Do tell.

picasso

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62 responses to “Pretentious, inflated, indulgent writing is bad. Always.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    If there’s one key writing tip I’ve truly taken to heart over the years (recovering run-on sentence abuser that I am), it is to “write tight”. Ironically enough (and I hope my usage of irony is correct here), it was an academic advisor (in the sciences no less) who taught me this lesson. Regardless of the cause, unreadable text is really not worth the paper it’s printed on.

    • ericjbaker

      I agree. After uploading the post, I decided life was too short to sift through another 8 pages of that introduction and skipped directly to the first essay (written by someone else). I’m happy to report it is composed to read, not to impress.

    • nmartinez1938

      So true! I’ve been captured by this theme of write tight. I didn’t understand Tweet or its power of words– it fit the ‘learn to write tight’. There, I think I’ve done it. So I leave it to do its intent!

  • Bryan Edmondson

    Eric, this post was delightful slap in the face to my vocabulary word a day toilet paper.

  • nrhatch

    Wordy, pretentious writing is only acceptable as satire. Or when I use it as an example in a blog post, because everything I do is dripping with cool.

    Yes! Exactly.

    From my Clean Book Plate Club post:

    I remember the first book I gave myself permission not to finish ~ White Oleander by Janet Fitch. After seeing the movie, I trotted around to the library, checked out the book, took it home, and eagerly started reading.

    In short order, I found myself having to back up and re-read lengthy passages, sometimes more than once. One paragraph required 5 or 6 futile attempts to ascertain what the author was getting at.

    The more pages I turned, the more I felt as if I was reading through gauze.

    Rather than clear, crisp sentences, Fitch meandered about, dropping clues to her intended meaning rather than coming right out and saying what she meant. No one would accuse Ms. Fitch of being a fan of Strunk and White.

    Pretentious writing is best flushed . . . at the first possible moment.

  • B.L.W. Myers

    My first drafts are always wonderfully indulgent. I just roll around in my pretension and pat myself on the back for my cleverness. Then I set it aside, reread it later, laugh at how witty I thought I was, and flush that inflation out.

  • Jill Weatherholt

    Not only did some of my college professors author rambling articles, but they lectured the same way. Write Tight by William Brohaugh is in my TBR pile in 2013.

    • ericjbaker

      “Write Tight” is essential reading, especially if one is writing in the corporate world.

      Thinking back to my college days, I recall that the professors who wrote and lectured in a windy, abstruse manner were also the hardest to approach. Maybe they were socially uncomfortable and used big words and long sentences as a wall?

  • I Am Behind My Time « Spirit Lights The Way

    […] * I’m not going to beat around the bush.  I’ll get straight to the point.  No obfuscation.  No pontification.  When we write tight, we write right . . . just ask Eric. […]

  • bluebee

    Plain English wins every time. And it doesn’t mean the exclusion of interesting vocabulary. I tear my hair out when researching for my university assignments – as you say, a lot of eye-glazing goes on.

  • diannegray

    I love wordy academic writing because it’s a great cure for my insomnia.

    This post is certainly ‘dripping with cool’! 😉

  • nmartinez1938

    A very educational moment. Thanks!

  • Ray

    I sent this article to my students. When I gave my students their first papers back,
    one actually told me, “you want me to dumb it down.” I recommended that she read Elements of Style. Is it so difficult to understand that pretentious language obscures the writer’s message?

    • ericjbaker

      Greetings and thanks for sharing the piece!

      I believe the chief sin of pretentious writing is that the writer has focused on himself and not the reader. Even in an essay based on personal experience, we write for the reader to be amused, entertained, riled, or to feel some other emotion, not so they are impressed with our vocabulary.

      Pretentious writing is often constructed in a passive way, as well. Passive writing is objectively inferior to active writing, The writer has a choice between being pedantic and passive or informative/entertaining and active. The differences are pretty stark. It should be a no brainer.

      Thanks again.

  • Manny Martinez

    I thank you for this article. While it isn’t a major problem if you pull out a fancy word every few couple of sentences. Trying to shove in thirty words that most folks don’t even know in a paragraph, pulls them away from your writing. I actually just learned my lesson trying to impress a group of reviewers. Who later down the line, insulted me for being asinine for trying to use words that didn’t fit the context of the sentence.

    It’s actually what put my spirits down, and even made it more obscure as to what I was doing terribly wrong (until I read this article). The bottom line is that if you want to impress people, convey your message in a way that pretty much anyone can understand. It takes real skill to accomplish something like that, and it doesn’t make you look like your ego has grown too far for it’s taste.

    • Bryan Edmondson

      Hi Manny. I am a beginning writer. I ask mentors whom I look up to, occasionally to read my writings. All have always recommended that I “simplify,” my writing.
      I did not understand why, and the comments always made me a bit defensive. However I never “heard,” anyone state the same message quite as well as I received your point in the comment above.So thanks for commenting.

      Bryan Edmondson

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks for the comment, Manny. I believe the best way to impress your reader is to touch their emotions. Think about the reading experiences that moved you the most, and then observe what the writer did that affected you in such a memorable way. If you emulate that, while adding your own voice, you’ll come up with your best stuff yet.

      • Manny Martinez

        I still have a long way to go before I can be considered commendable. I can say a few good words, to those that are still in need of knowledge. I have no intention to sound haughty, since I’m just a sub-par sixteen year old writer. It’s just that it’s most important that you don’t allow bitter criticism to blind yourself as some misunderstood genius. Take what others say, evaluate it, and use that experience to improve yourself afterwards.

  • Brandon Rothfusz

    Reblogged this on Sweet Snark and commented:
    Fantastic blog regarding verbosity. I’m a fan of “write tight.”

  • term life insurance

    Oh my goodness! Amazing article dude! Many thanks, However I am encountering issues with your RSS.

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  • Kevin

    Your blatant denouncement of verbosity offends my sense of piquant delectation. Writing is not some plain mechanism for executing conversational intercourse, it is a ripe fruit, ready to be plucked! Each word, no matter how obscure or arcane, is an aliment in a larder of Archimedian delight, ready to be relished, digested, and ultimately excreted in academic articles.

    • ericjbaker

      Your effusiveness of and exaltation in the excessive is at once an exercise in the abstruse and a prose poem praising the pomposity of a parlance preserved for the purview of the pretentious and is, as juxtaposed judiciously yet justifiably with the vulgarity of the vernacular by no less a judge than myself, preternatural, thus permitting the obfuscation of this ambiguous and alliterative accusation.

      Or not.

  • Eric Arzaga

    The easiest way to write tight is to avoid transitioning between sentences. Readers don’t need hand rails to guide them through your thoughts. If they do, it’s your idea that’s bad, not your writing. Academia trains students to write in pompous ways because verbosity is seen as a sign of complex thought; if it sounds smart it must be smart. Rubbish. It’s surprising how many of my fellow English majors try and sound like they are from 16th century Cambridge.

  • A story composed entirely of one-syllable words | ericjohnbaker

    […] of my most read posts ever is this one, a piece on why inflated, pretentious writing sucks. Part of what shaped that view was an essay I […]

  • livelytwist

    I enjoyed reading this post and the comments that followed. I couldn’t agree more.

    I don’t always have the privilege of having my blog posts edited, but when I do, I opt for a “lay” person and I say, “If you have to read any sentence more than twice to understand it, it’s bad writing on my part.”

    Eric, this is priceless:

    “I have the intellectual firepower to understand the article, but I don’t have the patience to read something that is deliberately made obscure by someone more interested in waving her Ph.D. around than she is in conveying meaning.”

    • ericjbaker

      Excellent: “If you have to read any sentence more than twice to understand it, it’s bad writing on my part.”

      That’s at least 1/3 of editing right there. Nothing should put the burden on the reader to back up and inspect the sentence for meaning.

      Thanks!

  • fuel

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing ornately, to a certain extent and at certain times. I’d rather look up a few definitions when I’m reading for entertainment than read “awesome” seven more times a day.
    Though it definitely depends on the context of the writing and if you’re trying to make something poetic or just to inform. I’ve always hated those textbooks that read like T.S. Eliot :p

    • ericjbaker

      I have no objection to rich imagery and poetic prose, only to writers who are more concerned with impressing people than with entertaining or enlightening them.

      Thanks for reading and for the comment!

  • bzcjfklee@gmail.com

    You look at eyecatching new technology and additionally worry about how someone was able to install it all in all.

    • ericjbaker

      I do worry about that. Sometimes I can’t sleep right because of it. “How can someone have installed this eye-catching technology!” I cry out just after I wake up screaming.

  • bzcjfklee@gmail.com

    Ergonomics can be physical, cognitive or organisational.

  • uju

    I’ve enjoyed hunting down this post that garnered 300 clicks in 2 days! Really Eric, this is good advice. Personally I can’t stand write-ups that are so verbose I have to pause every now and then to understand what the writer is trying to convey.
    I’ve had to apply same to my writing, editing twice and striking out things I’d hate to see in another’s writing.
    Thank you 🙂

    P.S. I plan on sharing this on another platform. Let me know how many more clicks you get 😉

  • Shanti Cecilia

    I know of blog starting websites like web and wetpaint, but I hear google has a program that helps people do blogs. Does anyone know the name of the program? If not, any one know some good blogging websites?.

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