t's funny, ironic, and a little tragic that so many writers spend so much time chasing style. They believe that if they can craft something that sounds
right, whatever that means, they will have created something of value.
What a waste.
We write to create value for the reader, and the most efficient way to create value is through content, not style. One of the most effective ways we provide valuable content is to describe ideas, situations, and things, and we do that best when we describe them as they are, neither adding to them nor taking away from them. This is the power of plain speaking and, as I so often say, we can learn a lot from songwriters. Check out just the first line of “Pay No Attention to Alice,” written and recorded by country icon Tom T. Hall:
Pay no attention to Alice. She's drunk all the time.
That’s like getting slapped in the face with a skillet. Could it be plainer? Is there some poetic fuss you could have conjured to make the image clearer, more striking, more compelling? Pay no attention to Alice. She’s drunk all the time, hooked on that wine – bunches of it.
Dismissive yet dispassionate, disgusted yet in no way embellished. And it ruined her mind.
Think of the typical writerly (or speech-writerly) version: I’d like to recommend a somewhat controversial course of action, and I hope you’ll give this due consideration. What I’d like for you to do is limit the time you spend being attentive when you are around Alice. Now, there’s nothing wrong with Alice as a person, but by paying her attention, you’re investing your time in something that’s just not going to pay off in the end. You may find it confusing and she will, as well. The fact is that Alice has a problem; in particular, with substance abuse – it’s not uncommon and it’s not shameful, it’s just the way it is. This problem consumes her constantly and to the point of impairment.
We’ve all read stuff like that. Heck, we’ve all written it. (At least I have.) Contrast that with more from the song – and it’s worth noting that Tom T. Hall’s wife, Dixie, was a former journalist and editor who often reviewed his work and even wrote songs herself. I think her influence shows through: She made that apple pie from a memory; made them biscuits from a recollection that she had. She cooked that chicken too long but she don’t know that. Oh, what the hell. It ain’t too bad.
Mr. Hall even turns that clarity on himself – and, also of note, he mentions in a spoken introduction that the song is based on a real-life experience: Don’t talk about the war, I was a coward. Talk about fishin’ and all the good times raisin’ hell.
Plain speaking stands out for being easily understood but also because it’s rare, and we are attracted to whatever is uncommon. Finally, plain speaking, especially in this form of quick-strike descriptions of conversation and connection, is evocative by being metonymic; that is, these few small moments and close observations suggest to the reader or listener a larger situation. Just as we can imagine the completed puzzle from a few important pieces, so can we imagine, in this case, the lives of Alice and the others from these few closely observed moments.
Writers, especially speechwriters, can achieve the same powerful effect: use plain language, describe situations precisely and briefly, and let the members of the audience complete the picture from details drawn from their own experiences. It’s an impressive technique that lends a little art to the writer’s craft.
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