Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Keeping it simple isn't easy
I've been working on a different kind of writing these last couple of weeks: a formal university lecture and a workshop the next day.
This is not exactly virgin ground for me. Back in the late '70s and early '80s I taught a course called "Basic Writing" to freshmen at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. I addressed them as the students they were, while at the same time using the professional syntax of journalism.
There seemed to be no need to worry that some of them might not have the vocabulary of the craft. They were, after all, students at an elite university.
The upcoming lecture will be in January at the National Technical Institute of the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology. I'll be talking to the students and faculty about the life of a deaf writer.
Will the students be as smart and savvy as those at Medill more than a quarter of a century ago? Some folks say no, that academic standards have deteriorated over the years, that college students today are comparatively naive, ignorant and unlettered.
That doesn't trouble me overmuch. We said the same thing in the 1980s. And our professors said the same of us in the 1950s. Students, by definition, are naive, ignorant and unlettered; that's why they're in college, to learn how to be sophisticated, educated and literate.
Still I fret. Many of the students and faculty at NTID are deaf-born and count American Sign Language as their first language, English as their second. Can they be expected to have the same adeptness with English, the same vocabulary, as their hearing peers?
I don't know. Should I therefore suppress my natural tendency to use a vivid and sometimes polysyllabic lexicon rather than simple Anglo-Saxon words in delivering the lecture? Would that cheat my audience of understanding?
This is not a matter of "dumbing down." Expressing complex ideas in simple, clear and unadorned English can be damnably difficult. The result may look easy to the reader, but the best writers always struggle to make their prose seem straightforward and effortless.
On the other hand, many of these deaf students may want a career in professional journalism in the hearing world. For that they need to expand their knowledge of syntax and style as well as their vocabularies.
In addressing them, I'm trying to find a happy medium between the complex and elegant on one hand and the simple and clear on the other. It's not easy. But it's good discipline for a writer who sometimes falls in love with his own colorful prose.