Dr. Laura & The Pursuit of Clarity

William F. Buckley was the founding editor of a publication called National Review. He also hosted a TV program called Firing Line from 1966 to 1999 where he and another intellectual would have a deep and almost always insightful conversation for a full hour.

Buckley had a most distinctive style of writing and speaking. He was unquestionably brilliant, and he rejoiced in the English language, seemingly taking every opportunity to demonstrate his huge vocabulary. In fact, to follow Buckley’s writing (and even his speaking at times) I often found it necessary to have a dictionary at my side. Several years of this practice likely helped my ACT and GRE scores, but it often made following his thoughts a burdensome chore.

Why Clarity Matters

I am sometimes asked to edit the writing of others. Poor writing is usually caused by a lack of organized thought, convoluted sentence structure, or using a more complex word than necessary to convey a clear thought. These errors make editing (and reading!) a grueling task. When the writing is crisp and clear, editing is blissful!

I suggest writers start by asking themselves this question: When my readers finish reading, what is it that I want them to know? When writing we are trying to take a thought that resides in our brain and transfer that thought as efficiently and accurately as we can into the brain of the reader. To accomplish this requires that we communicate with as much clarity as possible, striving to make understanding as easy as we can for the reader.

You may well have 135 IQ points (or even 145 if you are William F. Buckley), but you are mistaken to assume your readers have that level of intellect. Write for the 105 IQ person; those with lower intellects will then understand your thoughts and those with higher intellects will rejoice at how pleasant it is to read your writing.

Spoken Communication

The other way to get an idea from your mind into the brain of another is to speak. Again, doing so in a straightforward and concise manner will increase the likelihood of accurate communication.

If you have ever listened to Dr. Laura on the radio, you will know that she specializes in being frustrated with speakers who do not get to the point. She is borderline (sometimes over the line for some people’s taste) rude, but she does not tolerate what I call verbal ramblers. These are speakers who 1) give irrelevant information when telling a story or making a point, 2) repeat themselves, and/or 3) start talking over you to say they agree with what you are saying before they have even heard your full comment.

Her respective responses to the list above are 1) “Mam, please stop. Why do I need to know that? In one short sentence, what is your question?”, 2) “You have said that. I heard you the first time.”, and 3) “Will you please be quiet! You see how a conversation works is you talk and then you stay quiet, actually listen, and maybe even think for a bit before you speak again.”

Both written and spoken communication can be improved by an aggressive pursuit of clarity. Most of the time this means reducing the number of words we write or speak.

Pascal, Franklin, and Twain all gave similar advice: “Had I more time, this letter would have been shorter.” Most of us would be wise to take their advice, taking just a bit more time before we speak or hit send.