Tag Archives: Elmore Leonard

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