Beautiful vs. Effective Prose
A long time ago, I fancied myself a writer and strove to write beautiful prose. I read a lot and borrowed from styles that I admired, but oftentimes my sentences ran on, and I relied on my thesaurus too heavily. But I enjoyed the process of writing and reached a familiarity with words that allowed me to simply let my thoughts flow through my fingers onto the page.
At university, I discovered The Elements of Style and quickly became an advocate instead of lean, effective prose. I strove to convey my thoughts using fewer words. Composition took more effort as I scrutinized each phrase. I was happy with the results, and I felt a deliberate craftsmanship that seemed more pronounced than before.
Then, I moved to Asia and began communicating primarily with people for whom English wasn’t their first language. I started using short, simple sentences that got straight to the point. If the purpose of writing is communication, then all that’s really important is to tell the other person what they need to know, right? Saying things in a fancy way will only complicate things.
It was around this time that I first saw the Simple English Wikipedia, and my first thought was, “Now this is the pinnacle of knowledge transfer. This is how you provide the most information to the most number of people as efficiently as possible.”
“But,” nagged a deep and quiet part of my mind, “that can’t be the full story. Poetry and literature, sure, it’s easy to set those aside and say maybe that it’s an art form, it’s writing for the sake of writing, and that’s why the pursuit of beauty can occur. Normal, day-to-day writing is not the same.
“What about, say, Journalism? That’s writing to share information, but when you recall the most esteemed journalists they aren’t the ones who write like a press release. They are those who have perfected their craft, who can shape their words into a compelling picture to evoke emotional reactions in the reader. Isn’t that what you should strive for?”
Yes, of course. Beautiful or effective? You want a lot of both. And unless you’re writing an instruction manual, sometimes prose needs to be beautiful to be effective. I haven’t taken writing seriously in a very long time, so unfortunately my writing now is not much of either, but I suppose now is a fine time to start looking for my best voice again.