Far from being nonsense, each
line is meticulously crafted to give the impression that it
is saying something serious. In Alice's own words, "It
seems to fill my head with ideas -- only I don't know exactly
what they are."
This is exactly what a good expository text should do. First,
present an idea, which of course will be fuzzy until you take
the second step, which is to clearly explain it. Too many
expository texts fail to follow this simple two-step procedure.
Instead, they either mix an idea together with details, without
clearly separating them. Or they give all the supporting details
first, with kind of a surprise ending: "Hey, here's what
all of this really means!"
Both approaches are dramatically incorrect.
Not clearly distinguishing key ideas from details means that
the key ideas get lost in the details. People are not quite
certain what they are supposed to retain from the text, so
they retain very little.
Saving the key idea for the end is probably worse. Readers
must wade through an ocean of details without understanding
their significance, so many will give up before they get to
the end. Those that do make it to the end are challenged to
go back through the text to better understand the conclusion,
which most are unlikely to do.
So once again, the best approach to most expository texts
1. Clearly state an idea.
2. Then clearly explain it.
"The Jabberwocky" follow this procedure? Yes,
but in its own inimitable way.
From the near total nonsense of the first paragraph,
it passes to near total understanding in the second
"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"
in this near understanding mode throughout the third, fourth,
fifth and sixth paragraphs. Only to conclude with the near
total nonsense of the first paragraph, which now somehow seems
less nonsensical than it did at the beginning.
We shouldn't stretch this analysis too far, because Mr. Carroll
obviously didn't achieve the number one objective of any expository
text - to be perfectly clear. But of course this wasn't his
intention. Unfortunately, many expository writers also fail
to achieve the objective, because "clear" is a weasel
word, i.e. it means different things to different people.
What is clear to you may not be clear to me, and vice versa.
The best way to resolve this problem is to give "clear"
a functional definition. A kind of recipe we can apply when
writing a text. And a test we can apply to evaluate the text
when we have finished. And here it is.
In order to be clear, you must do three things:
1. Emphasize what is of key importance.
2. De-emphasize what is of secondary importance.
3. Eliminate what is of no importance
In short, CL = EDE
This is not a perfect solution to the problem of clarity (nothing
is), but it comes reasonably close. First, you identify the
key ideas you want to convey and make certain that they are
highlighted (primary importance). Second, you explain or defend
these key ideas with appropriate supporting information (secondary
importance). Finally, you eliminate everything else (no importance).
This means rejecting all information that does not support
one or more of the key ideas.
As a result, you arrive at a text that is admirably clear,
because everything is in its proper place. Your text is also
automatically well on the way to being admirably concise,
because you have getting rid of everything of no importance.
In a first draft, information of no importance can take up
as 30 per cent of the text, so by eliminating it you have
reduced the length by 30 per cent.
It is not commonly known that Lewis Carroll's real name was
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. And in addition to being a superb
storyteller, he was also a first-class logician and mathematician.
I discovered this when I was a mathematics student at the
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). As part of my
studies, I had to take a class in semantic and symbolic logic.
Having been acquainted with Alice in Wonderland only through
the Disney cartoon, I was surprised to see a reference to
it in the course textbook. Then another one. And another one.
And another one. The more references I encountered, the curiouser
and curiouser I became. I had to read the book.
The fact is, Alice in Wonderland is heavy with mathematical
and logical allusions, if you know where to look. Prof. Dodgson
(Carroll) may have included them on purpose, but given who
he was, they might have just found their way into the work
naturally. In any event, I was intrigued and determined to
find them. One day, I was sitting in front of the university
waiting for a bus and reading Alice in Wonderland. A little
old lady walked by. A puzzled expression came over her face
when she noticed what I was reading. First she stared at the
book, then at the university, then back at the book. Finally
she walked away, shaking her head. I don't know what she was
thinking, but I am certain it wasn't very flattering, either
for me or the university.