“Prose is architecture, not interior design,” Ernest Hemingway once so succinctly declared.

While to me it’s fairly evident what he meant, I still think his quote merits some elucidation; perhaps some rebuking or defending as well.

Consider the following sentence (for any James Joyce fans out there, this one’s straight Stream of Consciousness, “off the top of the dome,” “Straight, No Chaser”):

“The quiddity of an author is indicated not by his gumption to impart knowledge on the epistemologically empty reader but rather by his refusal to comply with arbitrary schema which project and predicate themselves onto writing of any form deemed ‘literary,’ which, through its own tergiversated structure, becomes unrelentingly blasé.”

Did any of you have any idea what that meant?

Neither did I. And I’m the one who wrote it.

It is commonly believed using the type of language presented above, larded with “big words” and technical jargon, will make you seem smarter, more knowledgeable and authoritative on your subject.

This popular opinion is by no means new.

In the Athens of 400 B.C., Plato reports the following (probably fictional) exchange between his teacher, Socrates, and the popular rhetorician Gorgias in the dialogue of the same name.

“Socrates: Now I want you, Gorgias, to imagine that this question is asked of you by them and by me; What is that which, as you say, is the greatest good of man, and of which you are the creator? Answer us.

Gorgias: That good, Socrates, which is truly the greatest, being that which gives to men freedom in their own persons, and to individuals the power of ruling over others in their several states.

Socrates: And what would you consider this to be?

Gorgias: What is there greater than the word which persuades the judges in the courts, or the senators in the council, or the citizens in the assembly, or at any other political meeting? – if you have the power of uttering this word, you will have the physician your slave, and the trainer your slave, and the money-maker of whom you talk will be found to gather treasures, not for himself, but for you who are able to speak and to persuade the multitude.”

In Plato’s work, there is a clear juxtaposition between the philosopher and the sophist-rhetorician, but let’s leave those concerns aside for the moment.

Gorgias, with fairly good reason, thinks the greatest good for humans is just the ability to construe words with force and precision, in such a way that leaves the multitudes of the polis gaping and speechless.

But note that Gorgias would never be caught dead using a Joycean sentence like the one I construed earlier. Gorgias wants to convince, amaze and astound crowds of spectators through his oratory, and he can’t do that if no one has any idea as to what he’s saying.

Whether you’re a Gorgias or a Socrates, it is of the utmost importance that those listening to you understand you, whether you’re speaking or writing.

Personally, I wouldn’t waste 10 minutes of my life on a piece of writing in which I have to decipher the author’s language as though they’re using some incomprehensible hieroglyphics.

It should never be the reader’s job to have to decode a writer’s message, unless there are complex literary devices being employed. And even in such cases, complexity should not arise from a cumbersome organization of words, but rather from beneath the surface of the prose.

But my suggestion is to not attempt that sort of thing, unless you’re confident you can write with the technical virtuosity of a William Shakespeare or an Edgar Allan Poe. If you have such convictions, then go for it. Just make sure the reader isn’t cheated.

We use language to express our thoughts.

And whether these thoughts pertain to why rhetoric isn’t the greatest possible good for humans, as Plato argued, or why Midnight in Paris is a good movie for romantic types, it is best to express these thoughts clearly and intelligibly.

No one likes pedantic types who go about pontificating on trivialities, professing a superior grasp on language and abusing their vocabulary.

The moral of this story is writing must be lucid and to the point. Your time and effort in writing will be misplaced if your only objective is to scream at the reader, “Hey! Look at all these big words I [think I] know!”

Be more ambitious. Convey meaning clearly. Give your reader a message; preferably a relevant and important one.

If you do all of these things well, I’m inclined to say your writing will tower above the competition, gleaming like a skyscraper of impeccable glass and stainless steel, reflecting sublime sunlight with an enviable radiance.

And when people gaze at it, they’ll muster a profound, “Wow. That’s good architecture,” from the depths of their reverie.

headshotHorus Alas is senior philosophy major and can be reached at heliocentricnonchalance@gmail.com.

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