Saturday, 9 April 2011

'All that is solid melts into air' - political writing and language

The young Karl Marx
I've always regarded it as important that political writing is clear, direct and accessible. It shouldn't be a chore or an endurance test to read. Neither should it be wilfully obscure, thus excluding large chucks of the potential audience, in a misguided belief that a pseudo-academic style makes the author appear 'clever'.

There are, however, four modifications needed to this brief and at first sight possibly uncontroversial statement.

1. Different styles are appropriate for different audiences. An accessible writing style is a greater priority when trying to reach a wide audience. But even in more theoretical or academic writing, perhaps targeted at a niche audience, it is surely better to write clearly and succinctly than to be convoluted and tedious.

2. Some jargon is unavoidable. If someone writes about physics they must inevitably use some technical and scientific vocabulary, even if they are writing a popular science book or article for a lay, non-specialist audience. The same applies to politics. There are good reasons for having specialist vocabulary.

A good example is the word 'neoliberal' - you can't avoid using it. This is because there's simply no other, better-known, word that describes the same thing. Of course, a good writer catering for readers unfamiliar with the concept will provide relevant examples or elaborate on what they mean with more familiar concepts.

3. It's good to expand our vocabulary. As children we learn and broaden our horizons precisely by picking up on new words and working out their meanings - not normally by looking them up in a dictionary, but by figuring them out from context or, quite simply, asking someone bigger than us the question 'Why?' The same is true for adults, and it applies to politics as it does to anything else.

We therefore shouldn't be afraid of sometimes using words our readers may not be au fait with (yes, even cod French might just be excusable). When reading online it isn't terribly difficult to look up an unfamiliar or obscure word. The problem comes when there's so much arcane vocabulary that your reading is disrupted by frequently switching to Google search.

4. An enriched vocabulary can make for more engaging writing. It can help produce a more lively, enjoyable writing style. There's nothing wrong with a dash of poetic flair or an unexpected metaphorical leap. A particularly complex, sophisticated sentence might express an idea in more depth than would be possible in short sentences.

It's therefore essential to avoid the trap of thinking 'clear, direct and accessible' has to mean basic, plain and unimaginative. It might instead involve vivid and well-chosen images, sparkling sentences, or a sprinkling of humour. Marx's famous 'all that is solid melts into air', for example, is a simultaneously poetic, memorable, concise and clearly-understood way of describing the impact of capitalist development on social relations.

* This blog post was prompted by reading others' exchanges on Twitter. Sometimes a tweet just isn't enough to express what you want to say!


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