Bring some brio to your writing to add clarity, says Bryan Garner
It’s a truism that clarity is the quintessence of good writing. But what is it? It doesn’t mean ease of appreciation by simpletons with small vocabularies; nor does it mean confining yourself to ideas that are easily grasped. Rather, clarity is the quality you achieve when you get your ideas across, however difficult they may be, so they reliably reappear in the reader’s mind. Clarity is the paramount virtue of style.
There are many obstacles to clarity: fuzzy thinking, wordiness, abstractness, inept phrasing and plain dullness. It’s often said that an unclear mind cannot produce clear prose. That’s true enough. But the very techniques of good writing can reinforce clear thinking. The more lucidly you write, the more sharply your ideas will come into focus, both for your readers and yourself.
While writing, you surely pause from time to time to reflect on how much better you’re coming to understand the subject because of the passage you’ve just written.
A relentlessly clear style, by the way, is extremely rare. Almost nobody possesses it unfailingly. Merely including a few unnecessary extra words in a sentence can make it less clear:
Since December 2, 2022, certain of Mipe’s experts have promulgated a new theory regarding the case that they had not expressed at the time Pantor was determining which of Mipe’s experts would be deposed or at the time Pantor actually deposed those experts.
Some of Mipe’s experts have now adopted a new theory that they never expressed when Pantor deposed them.
Think about compounding this effect, sentence after sentence, through the length of a brief. The less-clear style saps readers’ energy.
Mind you, there’s nothing technically wrong with the verbose style—except that it’s unreadable. Even as you were reading the first passage, you probably became conscious, somewhere in the middle, of your struggle to focus on what was being said. Anyone who strings together a few sentences like that has completely lost most readers, even paid readers like judges.
Abstractness, too, can deplete readers’ energy and attention. It’s often just unnecessary vagueness, as by using the word several instead of three, or a number of instead of 14. But abstractness can infect prose in other ways, including using too few words. Consider:
Her starting salary was less than that of her male counterparts, and she was subsequently denied pay increases on several occasions.
Her starting salary was $7,500 less than that of her male counterparts, and during her two years at the company, she was denied pay increases three times.
The revision is six words longer, but it adds important information: $7,500; the two-year tenure; and three rejected pay raises.
The point is that clarity demands a knack for knowing what to empha- size and what to omit. It demands a piquant vividness that arouses readerly interest. It also demands the ruthless exclusion of whatever tends to be boring.
You might say that the difference between writers and good writers is that the latter have cultivated an ever-present horror of being boring. They know they can’t survive the yawns of readers.
Which brings us to vivacity or verve as an aspect of clarity. If readers can’t focus on what you’re saying, for any of various reasons, then you simply aren’t being clear. So far, we’ve seen two reasons: wordiness and abstractness. But let’s not forget the kind of restrained flair in vocabulary that rivets readers’ attention without seeming like desperate ostentation. (Oh yes, you can go overboard.)
Good writers have minds stocked with interesting words—not words that drive readers to dictionaries, but somewhat offbeat words that seem, in context, perfectly apt. They’re not the humdrum words that most people use trying to express the thought; they’re the stimulating words of someone who knows that readers’ attention must be earned.
Sometimes a dash of panache comes in the form of emphatic syntax and effective punctuation. Consider:
None of the five elements of equitable estoppel has been proved or alleged by Calvert.
Calvert has not alleged—much less proved—any of the five elements of equitable estoppel.
Both of the sentences above have 15 words, but what a change the phrasing makes.
It’s the difference between writing (which anybody can do) and good writing (which few people bother to master).
But it’s a well-deployed vocabulary, appearing alongside these other characteristics, that imbues prose with an irresistible brio.
It compels readers to sit up and notice what they’re reading. Better if it’s a subliminal effect: That’s why it should be a restrained flair, not over-the-top flamboyance.
Sometimes it’s a mere metaphor that can make a difference:
A similar conclusion was reached by the court in Mendelson v. Karp.
A similar conclusion sprang from Mendelson v. Karp.
Sometimes it’s a just a more spirited word choice:
The Stevensons have repeatedly refused Montgomery’s requests to interview Ronald Stevenson.
Time and again, the Stevensons have stymied Montgomery’s attempts to interview Ronald Stevenson.
And sometimes it’s a combination of nearly every technique we’ve considered:
Defendant Smith watched in an utterly passive manner, failing to intervene in such a manner as to protect Johnson from the brutal punches of another inmate.
Smith watched with unconcern, refusing to intervene as another inmate brutally pummeled Johnson.
Despite what you sometimes hear, nobody is born with this “gift.” It isn’t a gift; it’s a skill you develop. To say that one of your colleagues was “just born with a gift” is often really to say that you’re opting out of the work.
But how does all this relate to clarity? A clear style amounts to effortless reading. Anyone who expects readers to exert themselves to understand what is being said isn’t being clear—and isn’t writing well.
This story was originally published in the October-November 2023 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Clearing Obstacles: Bring some brio for clarity.”
Bryan A. Garner, president of LawProse Inc., is the author of The Winning Brief, Legal Writing in Plain English (now in a new third edition) and Making Your Case (with the late Justice Antonin Scalia). Garner is also chief editor of Black's Law Dictionary, in which he has sought to make the definitions relentlessly clear.
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.