A number of years ago, I was working on a book intended to introduce (or reintroduce) readers to some of the core beliefs of the Christian faith. (Perhaps you read it if you went to a conference in 2018 or 2019.) It was a book of theology and it needed to be accessible—to be clear. And clarity isn’t always easily achieved when you’re dealing with complex subjects.
Y’know, like the Trinity or the divine and human natures of Jesus. Little things like that.
Recently, I started working on another project in this vein. It’s still very much in the early days of development but already I find myself remembering some advice I was given years ago: if you have to choose between clarity and cleverness, choose clarity every time.
That was good advice a few years ago when it was first shared with me, and it still is today. Here’s why.
Clarity serves your audience
Although I want to enjoy what I write and be appropriately proud of it, I don’t write merely to please myself. As a Christian, which means my goal is to serve others with my writing. And sometimes the best way to serve a reader is to set aside clever wordplay in order to make sure that what needs to be understood can be.
My editor on my upcoming book and I went back and forth on chapter titles because of this. I had an idea for how I wanted all the titles to work, and although he liked the concept, he pushed back on just about every name. But he was right. I had an idea that was great in my head, but didn’t really make sense to people who aren’t me. So we changed them (and when the book comes out in 2023, you’ll get to enjoy the result of our efforts).
Clarity honors your subject matter
Back in 2008-2009, I was a part of a public speaking program. Because I had to make a lot of presentations at work, I needed help learning how to do that effectively. One of the things that I learned over my time in the program is that the most effective speaker is one who actually knows what he or she is talking about. Effective speakers are clear because they’ve put in the work to know their subject matter exceptionally well.
The same is true in writing. Cleverness—whether turns of phrase and complex language—is sometimes a mask for a lack of deeper knowledge. This is one of the things I always loved listening to (and reading) R. C. Sproul. Sproul could communicate highly complex subject matter in an incredibly accessible way. He could do that because he knew what he was talking about; his depth of understanding went far beyond the surface level familiarity that we’ve become accustomed to in a post-Twitter world.
Clarity pushes you to be better
There’s a degree to which “clarity vs cleverness” is a false dichotomy. Excellent writers know this. It is possible to be both clever and clear in your writing. But to be both clever and clear requires effort. It is not something that just happens. It takes work, often significant amounts of it.
This is why I try to make sure I’m writing every day, whether on an article like this or on one of my many in early-stages books. The more work I put in, the better I become. The better I become, the better the reading experience for you. It’s also why I take the time to study what I read, because I want to better understand the choices authors I respect and appreciate made.
And it’s why I always want to have people around me who will tell me when something doesn’t work. Feedback matters. Whether that feedback is from an editor, my wife, or some other source, it almost doesn’t matter. The feedback is what matters. When someone says they don’t understand what you wrote, you need to take it seriously. Listen when you get pushback. When someone says you’re being too clever for your own good, take it seriously. The feedback, even if you disagree with it, will make you better as a result.