“A turgid and polysyllabic prose does seem to prevail in the social sciences. . . . Such a lack of intelligibility, I believe, usually has little or nothing to do with the complexity of thought. It has to do almost entirely with certain confusions of the academic writer about his own status.” ~ C. Wright Mills
Many smart people like to write in an overtly opaque fashion. They use big words. They write cryptic, twisting sentences aimed to confuse. They use tiny fonts. I’d like to argue for a moment that those are the dumb smart people.
I think there’s an inversely proportional relationship between the amount of hand-waving, posturing and general opacity one uses to communicate and the quality of their actual thought.1
People who have something to write about say it plainly. They use simple, precise language in a readable font. People who have nothing to say, but want to make it appear otherwise, use a micro-font and spend three paragraphs saying nothing at all—dazzling the fools.
I have assigned myself a life task: When in discussions with smart people who are using these tacks-on-floor and flour-in-eyes tactics, I will call them out. I will give a restatement of their position in one fifth of the words and ten times the strength. Then ask them to use that style in the future if they are actually interested in communication, else I’ll find someone who is.
Further, I will challenge them that if they can’t write, and speak in this way, it’s because they have nothing to write about, and that they should do some introspection exercises before they go outside again. They get a choice:
- They’re poor thinkers
- They’re poor writers
They get to pick. Hopefully it’s the latter, and they can make adjustments. If it’s the former, which is the case for many, then the fix will be more involved.
Essentially, everyone with something to say should highlight their ideas, not the medium. If you’re Christopher Hitchens, and you can be direct and clear while being beautiful at the same time—you have my respect. But either way, put clarity above all else.
- There’s an exception to this, which is people who don’t know any better and would switch instantly if they saw the better way.