Insincerity: The enemy of clear language

by Mr. Sheehy

In “Politics and the English Language” George Orwell writes, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” This year I have been emphasizing this line with students and using it to jump into an article Jonathan Rogers wrote for his newsletter, The Habit. There, Rogers defines the subtext and, too often, the real text of academic essays:

The text of an academic paper can be about almost anything—mitosis and meiosis, the Weimar Republic, existentialism, federalism, Paradise Lost, What I Did Last Summer. But whatever the text is about, all academic papers share more or less the same subtext: GIVE ME AN A. THINK I’M SMART. APPROVE OF ME. Really, I don’t see how that could NOT be the subtext of any essay you’re submitting for a grade. 

But too often, I suspect, students think of GIVE ME AN A as the real  text of an academic essay, papered over with just enough information about the purported subject (Romeo and Juliet, the Whiskey Rebellion, etc) to make the A possible.

That kind of thinking is behind students’ diligent efforts to figure out “what the teacher wants.”

So when a student writing about the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan faces a complex idea in her essay–an inevitability if she’s engaging it truthfully–her priority, her driving concern, could accidentally become not finding the words that articulate that complex idea, but finding the words that sound like a teacher would assign an A to them. The result in that moment is a disregard for Orwell’s key advice: “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.” When the real text is “give me an A,” the student will choose the word that sounds like it merits an A–and the word will choose the meaning.

And since the topic of their paper is the atomic bombs, her pursuit is insincere. Ideas about the atomic bomb are not what she means to say.

Of course, if a teacher has assigned the topic, it might be difficult for a student to engage sincerely in it. But it is possible for a student to tweak a topic so as to make themselves invested in it, to make their interest sincere. In Writing About Your Life, William Zinsser challenges writers to adapt such constraints editors put upon them, and his advice applies easily to teachers:

Don’t assume that editors know exactly what they want. Often they don’t. Don’t shape yourself to a dumb assignment; that’s no favor to you or to the magazine or to the reader. Shape the assignment to your own strengths and curiosities. (134)

A student can find a question worth pursuing within a restricted topic, but she has to be willing to search for it.

Zinsser goes further than this, suggesting that a writer might “come up with a better idea. You make your own luck.” That might seem like it could never apply to a classroom, but I’ll say for myself that if a student reaches out to me with an alternate assignment that meets or exceeds my expectations with the original, I’d be thrilled rather than annoyed.

Such efforts might be harder, but striving for sincerity is worth a student’s while–the results will be obvious in the clarity and energy of the final piece of writing.