Back in January l993, I was invited by my local daily newspaper to write an editorial about feminism on the campus at the local university where I taught. I was asked to offer my opinion because my conservative ideas countered the prevailing cultural orthodoxy on campus. So I wrote my piece and ran it by a colleague who taught in the communications department and was the adviser to the student newspaper. After reading my essay he suggested I simplify the language and make it more accessible. He told me the general readers in the community might not follow my line of thought, and that while he agreed with me, my argument would be lost on the majority of readers. I should write the editorial so that all could understand my language, so that all could understand my point of view. The obvious point was that if you don’t need a dictionary to understand a piece of writing, then even those that have a dictionary can understand the writing. I thanked him for his comments, and went ahead with my op-ed as I had written it, because I was proud of the pseudo-sophisticated explanation of my position. The essay was a hollow victory. I got to keep my pride of vocabulary but I lost the reason why I wrote the article in the first place. I suspect no one’s opinion was changed. I didn’t impress those who disagreed with me, and those who agreed with me didn’t care. It was a failure all the way around. I was a fool. I learned my lesson: write for the audience and stifle your prideful preening prose.
The principle of being audience-sensitive is taught extensively in the Bible, but most especially by Solomon in Proverbs. Proverbs is generally divided into two major parts with the first part (Chapters 1 – 9) being introductory and the second part (Chapters 10 – 31) being practical instruction. It has been estimated that 20% of the practical part – chapters 10 – 31 – deal with language. Robert Young notes that in Proverbs, the word “mouth” (chek, peh, panim) is used 50 times, “lips” (saphah) 48 times, and “tongue” (lashon) 19 times. all in at least 111 verses which mention language. This usage is far more than in any other book of the Bible. It can be said that much of Proverbs is aimed at producing Christian speakers and writers who know how to use their language skills wisely. Proverbs is the Biblical textbook for the Christian journalist. Indeed, Proverbs can be used as a textbook for many practical disciplines (i.e., Clinton McLemore has written a Proverbs commentary on leadership strategies, Good Guys Finish First, 1983).
The Christian journalist must always take into account the audience to which she is communicating. Good words succeed, bad words fail. A human word written for everyone may have no individual significance. Badly written words sweep away the prospect of good, and can leave an unfortunate impression. The lovely medium of well-chosen words enhances the truth of a situation. Unseemly language makes wholesome truth more unpalatable. Well chosen words depend not only on the words themselves but on the occasion in which they are written.
In the next several days, I will take a look at some of the most important proverbs.