Yesterday, when I read former FBI director James Comey's prepared statement to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I was struck by one particular passage:
A few moments later, the President said, "I need loyalty, I expect loyalty." I didn't move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner.
This paragraph really stuck with me. I kept returning to it, reading it over and over again. Finally, it occured to me why: the thing that really resonated for me is that the passage reads like it could have been written by Haruki Murakami. There's food, a bland narrator trying to be passive in a bizarre situation, incredible social awkwardness, and a weird otherworldly character insinuating himself into reality. Throw in a cat and a missing woman and you've got yourself a paragraph that could've been plucked out of the middle of any of Murakami's latest novels.
But the other thing I immediately noticed about Comey's testimony is that it is very well-written. I hope that non-writers pay attention to the quality of the prose in Comey's report. It is clear, declarative, and descriptive without being florid. We should celebrate good writing wherever we find it, and this is good writing.
Everyone, from menu-writers to sportscasters to insurance adjusters, could learn from Comey's writing style: his economy, his utility, his clarity. It would be so easy for Comey to get melodramatic, or overly verbose. If he was a bad writer, this report would be confusing, or off-putting. If he left details out, it would be damaging to his value as a witness. Instead, he uses just the right word at just the right time, and then he moves on.
With this report, Comey demonstrates what good writing can do: when properly applied, in just the right situation, a piece of fine prose might even launch a chain of events that could — with a little bit of luck — eventually topple a president. Never let anyone tell you that writing doesn't matter.