For writing, it's the best of times and it's the worst of times. Best, because more people are engaged in the act of writing than at any other time in human history. When I was young, the written word belonged to professionals, who had to pass through stern gatekeepers before reaching that status. (For most everybody else, writing was limited to a postcard here and there and the occasional thank-you note; reports of letter-writing in the pre-Internet era are greatly exaggerated.)
But now our culture is suffused with written expression: e-mails, texts, status updates, blog posts, comments, product reviews, and short articles in thousands upon thousands of websites, including the one you're reading right now. All but the last category operate without old-fashioned gatekeepers. You write something, you hit a key, and it's published. A lot of this writing is really good, too: sharp, funny, informed, personal.
But a lot of it is really bad, and that brings me to the worst-of-times part. As comfortable and frequently adept as people are in writing for their friends or affinity groups, they tend to get spooked when called on to produce more formal kinds of prose. This is something I've experienced for the last twenty years, during which I've taught advanced undergraduate writing and journalism classes at the University of Delaware.
If you read more than a couple of online pieces about the state of writing today, you're likely to come upon the charge that smiley faces, "LOL"-style abbreviations, and slang terms are rampant in young people's prose. I think this is whack. In fact, I don't remember a single example in all my years of grading papers, except for a handful of ironic parries. Students realize that this kind of thing is in the wrong register for a college assignment.
But they have trouble finding the right register. And it's not just students, either. I find a lot of the same problems in business e-mails, and in much published prose as well. Here's an analogy: you've spent your life in sandals, Hawaiian shirt, and yoga pants, and you're invited to a Bar Mitzvah where a suit and tie, plus appropriate shoes, are required. You're definitely going to make some fashion blunders.
In the same way, people who are used to informal writing tend to lose their way when called upon to write for publication or in a business setting, not to mention classroom assignments. In my new book How to Not Write Bad, I take a look at the most common problems that come up (surprisingly, not a very long list), and suggest ways to address them.
Here's a list of some highlights--or should I say lowlights. If you master all nine, I can pretty much guarantee you won't be writing badly. In fact, you'll be on your way to writing well.
I once had a student include the following sentence in an assignment: “Not only do journalists possess an undying passion to uncover and showcase relevant information to enhance the public’s knowledge on current events, but exhibit a willingness to go to great lengths to obtain stories fit to print.” The sentence has a lot of problems, notably clichés and poor word choice, but the main thing is wordiness. Not being wordy (in other words, writing concisely) is both selfish and generous. Generous because it contains an implicit acknowledgment that the reader’s time is valuable and that you don’t intend to waste it. And selfish because, compared to verbosity, it’s a much more effective way of getting your point across. Let me stress that by “wordy,” I don’t just mean using a lot of words. Many great sentences go on for a good bit. Rather, I mean the memorable idea expressed by Will Strunk, as quoted by E.B. White in “The Elements of Style”: “Omit needless words!” Admittedly, it takes a good deal of time and effort to follow that advice. It’s much easier to be verbose than concise, as the philosopher Pascal observed when he wrote, “Please forgive the long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.” First drafts (mine, at least) are always wordy. Examining what you’ve written for needless words is tedious in itself. And when you’ve spotted them, you generally can’t just pluck them out and be done with it; the sentence has to be reshaped. I believe that today, wordiness is more of a problem than it’s ever been, in large part because it’s so easy to write on a keyboard. And once a sentence or paragraph is on the screen it looks so shapely and professional! But good writers have always had to go through the pruning process. In the case of my student, the process leads to something like: “The best journalists are passionate about their work and indefatigable in tracking down stories.”
Here’s the most underrated writing tip I know: when possible, make the subject of a sentence a person, a collection of people, or a thing. It sometimes seems natural to choose a concept or property or some other intangible as a subject, but when you do, you’re generally forced into a weak or awkward verb or, at best, the passive voice. If you look at a good writer’s work, you’ll find that three quarters of the sentences, or more, have strong subjects. For example, I once had a student write in an assignment: “Intelligence is a quality shared by every member of the family.” Following this principle, it’s easy to rewrite and improve the sentence: “Everybody in the family is smart.” (For use of “smart” rather than “intelligent,” see number 4, below.) One especially common weak opener are the expressions “there are” or “there is.” Fortunately a fix is usually pretty easy. A lot of the time, you just get rid of “there are/is” and a relative pronoun (“who,” “that”) and voila! For example, “”There are five poets who have given readings at the school this year” becomes “Five poets have given readings at the school this year.” My rule of thumb is that “there are” constructions are fine is you can replace “are” with the word “exist.” For example, I don’t have a problem with: “There are twenty-five three-star restaurants in Rome.” (It’s certainly better than “Rome boasts twenty-five three-star restaurants.”) Otherwise, rewrite.
Having a strong ending for a sentence is as important as having a strong beginning for a sentence. I hope you can see how what I just wrote—while being grammatically correct, precise, true, and relatively concise—violates the very maxim it expresses, and as a result ends up being as weak as the beer at a college mixer. (In addition, the subject—“Having a strong ending for a sentence”—violates rule 2, above.) Unfortunately, a great many of our first-draft sentences seem to want to end up with a whimpering trail of prepositional phrases, non-essential details, and other extraneous material. A word for this is “anticlimax,” and it’s not a good thing. Once you’ve recognized the problem—a key step, as always—the first thing to do is figure out which word or phrase best represents the takeaway with which you’d like readers to leave the sentence. Then see if you can make this the last word. In the above example, it’s pretty easy to figure out that this magic word is “ending,” and then to shove it to the end. So we end up with: “Possibly the most important building block of a strong sentence is a strong ending.” You’re probably on the right track if you end with a noun or, once in a while, with an adjective or an adverb. Concluding prepositional phrases are unavoidable, to a certain extent, but try not to double or triple them. Thus, “The priest went back to his homeland” is fine, but “The priest went back to his homeland after his vacation” is clunky. To fix that one, just do some shuffling: “After his vacation, the priest went back to his homeland.”
There’s nothing horribly wrong with “reside.” For centuries, it’s had a comfortable place in the dictionary. Everybody knows what it means. But there’s another word that means exactly the same thing and that’s shorter—by one syllable and two letters. That word is “live.” Good writers use “live”; a large subset of bad writers use “reside.” The English language is unusual in having hundreds if not thousand of such pairs of synonyms, where one word is plain and the other fancy. Usually the longer word is Laitinate in origin and the shorter one is Anglo-Saxon. No matter what kind of writing you’re doing, it’s usually the case that the simpler one word is better. The longer one makes you sound pretentious, or bureaucratic, or pleased with yourself. In addition to “reside”/”live,” some other common pairs are “purchase”/”buy,” “possess”/”have,” “individual”/”person,” and “utilize”/”use.” Now, sometimes you’ll want the fancy word, for variety, ironic effect, cadence, or some other reason. And hundreds and hundreds of multi-syllabic or unusual words have no simple equivalent. What better way to describe an out-of-the-way word than “arcane,” a bitter person than “dyspeptic,” or the act of deliberately giving up something as “eschewing”? If you “own” such a word, in the sense of being confident of its meaning and nuance, go for it! Otherwise, nine times out of ten, simpler is better.
Spell-check programs are great. Spell-check programs are a disaster. Let me explain. Back in the old days, students would often make spelling mistakes like “embarass” (instead of “embarrass”) or “influencial” (instead of “influential”). No more! Modern word-processing programs put squiggly red lines under misspelled words or, better yet, silently correct them (as mine just tried to do with “embarass”). But in the manner of many labor-saving devices, spell-check has caused spelling muscles—never especially robust to begin with—to atrophy to an extent that they now have the firmness of grape jelly. Even worse, it’s inspired a false sense of confidence, so that we now never even think of checking the spelling of a word in the dictionary. One result is a sharp increase in the number of bungled homophone (homophones being a pair of words that sound the same but mean different things). Spell-check gives the wrong word a free pass—no squiggly line—because it is a word. So spell-check has permitted my students to make reference to (correct word in parenthesis) “a self-described loaner (loner)”; someone building a “mote (moat) around her house”; a “heroine attic” (heroin addict); a “sequence-covered (sequin-covered) dress”; and “the Super Attendant (superintendent) of schools.” How to avoid this kind of thing? The longterm solution is to read as much as you can, so you get a sense of what words mean and how they’re spelled (as well as a great many other things that will help in your writing). Short-term, I’d advise cultivating an attitude of deep skepticism about your own word use. If you have a smidgen of doubt about a word, do not rely on spell-check. Use a dictionary, preferably a paper one, and look up not only the spelling but the definition. And that leads me to my next point…
Let’s say I wrote the following sentence: “The online thesaurus is a great tool.” Then let’s say I wasn’t happy with the word “tool”; maybe I had used it two sentences before, or maybe I thought it wasn’t fancy enough. (See point 3.) So I click the proper click to bring up Microsoft Word’s thesaurus and am offered the following alternatives: “instrument,” “apparatus,” “implement,” “device,” “means,” “utensil,” “contrivance,” and “gizmo.” I submit that none of these would be an acceptable substitute for “tool” in that sentence, with the possible exceptions of “device” (barely) and “gizmo” (not bad). However, if I were someone who hadn’t read a lot, and especially if I thought that longer is better, I might be tempted by “instrument,” “apparatus,” or “utensil.” If I gave in to temptation, I would wreck the sentence. Again, my long-term counsel is a lot of reading and my short-term counsel is a bit of self-doubt, in this case regarding your mastery of a word’s meaning and connotation. When you find you don’t have the word you want at your disposal, break down your thought into one or more short, simple sentences of whose meaning you’re completely confident. If they sound like “See Dick run,” that’s okay; you can start building them back up again. If you go through the process and find you’re still really stuck for a word, fine, use the thesaurus. But when you have a likely candidate, take care to look it up in the dictionary. Study the definition and the used-in-a-sentence examples, and don’t go ahead it until you really own the word.
Sometimes a comma goes where you would pause if you were reading the sentence aloud. But sometimes it doesn’t, so you can’t rely on your ear when deciding when a comma is called for. For example, it’s become very common to put a comma after “And” or “But” when one of those words starts a sentence. For example, “Bill said he was coming. But, he didn’t show up.” Sorry! When saying the sentence aloud, you may pause after “But,” but punctuation follows rules, not sound, and the rules say, “No comma.” Not to get too geekily grammatical, but there are a limited number of cases where a comma is used, and it’s worth running through the most prominent ones: • To separate complete clauses that have different subjects and are separated by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, yet, so, etc.). “President Obama’s inaugural address started at 1:30, and his supporters started tweeting at 1:31.” • To set off introductory elements. “As a result of the heavy snowfall, school was cancelled.” • To set off nonessential elements, sometimes known as appositives, nondefining clauses or parenthetical phrases. “My accountant, Ann Jackson, who was born in Toronto, likes to play hockey.” (Sometimes people mistakenly leave out the second commas in such situations, perhaps because they wouldn’t pause there for long when speaking the sentence.) • To separate items in a list. “My favorite desserts are banana cream pie, oatmeal cookies, and carrot cake.” (Authorities differ on whether to put a comma after the second-to-last item in the series, in this case “cookies.”) • In quotations, addresses, and dates. “He said, ‘I was born in New Rochelle, New York, on February 22, 1954.’” That’s pretty much it. Now don’t get me started on the semicolon.
The meaning of words changes over time, as does the degree to which new meanings are widely accepted. A couple of decades ago, using “hopefully” to mean “I hope that” just wasn’t done, and neither could you say “contact” to mean “get in touch with.” Now both are pretty much considered okay by all but the stickliest sticklers. It’s usually a pretty good idea to stay away from words or phrases that have just begun or are somewhere in the middle of this process. Almost everybody will understand what you mean, and most people won’t have any problem with your wording, but the aforementioned sticklers will turn up their noses and disregard the very intelligent things you have to say. The writer Bryan Garner coined a good expression for this category: “Skunked words.” That is, they still have an odor about them, so it’s best to keep your distance. I would have similar advice about jargon and clichés. Yes, they get the idea across, but they are by definition stale and picked-over, and some of your readers will think the worse of you for having used them Here’s a partial list of current offenders, along with examples and suggested substitutes: • “Literally.” “I literally turned the house upside down looking for my car keys.” Just leave it out. • “Impact” as a verb. “Google’s terrible annual report is really going to impact the stock market tomorrow.” “Drive the stock market down.” • “Unique” to mean “unusual.” “That’s one of the most unique outfits I’ve ever seen.” “Unusual.” • “Going forward.” “Going forward, we’re going to emphasize cost-cutting.” “In the future,” “from now on.” • “Reach out to.” “Let’s reach out to our customers and try to get them to increase their orders.” What do you know, the alternative is our formerly skunked, now pristine, friend --“contact”!
I’d estimate that three-quarters of the time, you can improve a sentence by striking out the qualifiers (such as “pretty,” “somewhat,” “sort of,” and “a little”) and intensifiers (such as “very,” “extremely,” really,” and “absolutely”). Qualifiers make you come off as mealymouthed. Consider: “Roy Halladay is arguably the best pitcher in the National League.” How weak can you get! It’s tantamount to saying, “I can’t really back this up, but it’s possible that Halladay is the best pitcher in the league, maybe.” Instead, pick a strong limb and take a stroll out on it (making sure you have your facts right, of course): “Halladay has the most wins, the most strikeouts, and the lowest ERA in the National League.” Or, better yet: “Halladay is the best pitcher in the National League.” Intensifiers, meanwhile, make you seem like the Boy Who Cried Wolf: “This time they’re really, really coming. I mean it! Really!” More often than not, a naked statement is stronger than one pumped up with intensifying steroids.” Compare: “’Transformers V’ is an unbelievably, terrifically, incredibly bad movie.” “’Transformers V’ is a bad movie.” Exclamation points are the punctuational equivalent of intensifiers, and just as fraught with peril. But that’s a discussion for another day!
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