On punctuation + effortless writing

Reading this morning’s post on the incomparable Brain Pickings, Maria Popova highlights a passage from Quack This Way by David Foster Wallace + Bryan A. Garner. The bit about punctuation especially resonated after trying to transcribe quotes yesterday

Reading is a very strange thing. We get talked to about it and talk explicitly about it in first grade and second grade and third grade, and then it all devolves into interpretation. But if you think about what’s going on when you read, you’re processing information at an incredible rate.

One measure of how good the writing is is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what’s going on. For example, I am not an absolute believer in standard punctuation at all times, but one thing that’s often a big shock to my students is that punctuation isn’t merely a matter of pacing or how you would read something out loud. These marks are, in fact, cues to the reader for how very quickly to organize the various phrases and clauses of the sentence so the sentence as a whole makes sense.


One of the things that really good writing does is that it’s able to get across massive amounts of information and various favorable impressions of the communicator with minimal effort on the part of the reader.

That’s why people use terms like flow or effortless to describe writing that they regard as really superb. They’re not saying effortless in terms of it didn’t seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it — the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention.

Related: Chris Blattman highlights Ezra Klein’s presentation to World Bank researchers: how researchers are terrible communicators, and how they can do better. Also: Todd VanDerWerff on the three words that can make your writing better: but, therefore, meanwhile.