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A ten year old teaches clarity in writing

I was recently reading The Best Science & Nature Writing of 2004, a compendium edited by Steve Pinker, who explains in the book’s introduction that clarity of writing was a major criterion in selecting the articles included in the book.  He discussed the great Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport, who had written an ‘epistle’ for graduate Ph.D. students to use in crafting their thesis. Pinker  pointed out that "Allport tried to steer students away from the clutter and fog of professional science prose and offered as a model an essay by a ten-year-old girl, who he wrote merited a higher degree ‘if not for the accuracy of her knowledge, then at least for the clarity of her diction.’"  Here is the ten year old girl’s essay:

The bird that I am going to write about is the Owl.  The Owl cannot see at all by day and at night is as blind as a bat.

I do not know much about the Owl, so I will go on to the beast I am going to choose.  It is the Cow.  The Cow is a mammal.  It has six sides–right, left, and upper and below.  At the back it has a tail on which hangs a brush.  With this it sends the flies away so that they do not fall into the milk.  The head is for the purpose of growing horns and so that the mouth can be somewhere.  The horns are to butt with.  Under the cow hangs the milk.  It is arranged for milking.  When people milk, the milk comes through and there is never any end to the supply.  How the cow does it I have not yet realized, but it makes more and more.  The cow has a fine sense of smell; one can smell it far away.  That is the reason for the fresh air in the country.

The man cos is called an ox.  It is not a mammal.  The cow does not eat much, but what it eats it eats twice, so that it gets enough.  When it is hungry it moos, and when it says nothing it is because its inside is all full up with grass.

Amazing, isn’t it?  This ten year old girl’s observations, while obviously full of whimsy, are actually quite insightful.  I’ve seen more than a few legal briefs that were not as clever, and plenty that were not as clearly written.  I guess the lesson to be learned is that most people (even lawyers!) have something interesting to say, but not many know how to say it in an interesting way. 

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