Although it was many lost brain cells ago, I can still remember those first days of law school when my classmates and I spent a week or two figuring out how to even read a court decision or legal brief.  It struck me as odd that I could pick up any newspaper, read about some dispute or another that I previously knew nothing about, and have a decent understanding of what was going on within five minutes.  On the other hand, my pre-law school self could pick up a legal brief, read about some dispute or another, and come away wondering if it was written in the same language that I had been speaking for the previous twenty years.  If you want to see this dynamic at work, compare these two pieces of writing which each describe a recent lawsuit brought against General Mills that has to do with allegedly toxic vapors: one an article from the KARE 11 news and the other the legal complaint.  My guess is that the latter is going to be difficult for non-litigators to slog through.

And as much as I might like to take jabs at the legal profession, we certainly aren’t alone in making up our own little code that only insiders can understand (I dare you to read 100 pages of most anything written by a professor, doctor, or teenager).  I had always believed that a lot of difficult-to-read writing could be explained by the idea that people tend to confuse complexity with intelligence.  In other words, if you can’t read my writing, it’s because you’re dumb, not because I’m a crappy writer.  But a recently published interview with David Foster Wallace presented a reason I hadn’t thought of — that the writer may simply be trying to show that they are part of the “the group:”

Interviewer: Why do so many English professors write so poorly?

David Foster Wallace: A lot of academic writing—and my guess is a lot of legal, medical, scientific writing—is done by … [pause] All right. How to do this?

The simple way to put it, I think, is: Writing, like any kind of communicating, is complicated. When you’re writing a document for your professional peers, you’re sending out a whole lot of different messages. Some of them are the stuff you’re arguing; some of them are stuff about you.

My guess is that disciplines that are populated by smart, well-educated people who are good readers but are nevertheless characterized by crummy, turgid, verbose, abstruse, abstract, solecism-ridden prose are usually part of a discipline where the dynamic between writing as a vector of meaning—as a way to get information or opinion from me to you—versus writing as maybe a form of dress or speech or style or etiquette that signals that “I am a member of this group” gets thrown off.

There’s the kind of boneheaded explanation, which is that a lot of people with PhDs are stupid; and like many stupid people, they associate complexity with intelligence. And therefore they get brainwashed into making their stuff more complicated than it needs to be.

I think the smarter thing to say is that in many tight, insular communities—where membership is partly based on intelligence, proficiency and being able to speak the language of the discipline—pieces of writing become as much or more about presenting one’s own qualifications for inclusion in the group than transmission of meaning. And that’s how in disciplines like academia—or, I’ve read some really good legal prose, but when it’s really, really horrible (IRS Code stuff)—I think that very often it stems from insecurity and that people feel that unless they can mimic the particular jargon and style of their peers, they won’t be taken seriously and their ideas won’t be taken seriously. It’s a guess.

I think this explanation makes a lot of sense within the legal community where one is constantly dealing with unknown attorneys.  By usings lots of “shalls,” “heretofors,” “thereofs,” and “herewiths,” an attorney might simply be trying to signal to other attorneys that “I AM AN ATTORNEY AND I KNOW WHAT I AM DOING!”  I suspect something similar is going on when writers in certain industries pepper their writing with terms like “thought leader” or entreprenuers describe their ideas as “disruptive.”

So for those of us who work within an insular community, I think we ought to consider that everything we write has a dual purpose: one is getting our point across and the other is to indicate that we belong.  And by recognizing  the audience for any particular communication, we can know which one of those is more important in any given communication.

 Calvin and Hobbes cartoon.