The final quotation above may seem
curious. How can literary style be equated with morals or character? Writers
with little substance to place on paper will occasionally try to expand their
thoughts with an abundance of flowery vocabulary. It’s easy to spot writers who dabble in
puffery: They pepper their writing with adjectives like very, extremely,
much, etc.; and they embroider their ideas with jargon, unnecessary phrases,
pretentious language, and clichés (ugh!).
They focus their analysis on some small point, and write as if its
significance has hitherto been unappreciated. We all do this to some extent. But when we find ourselves falling into
these traps, we need to get out.
So my first rule of rhetoric is to
be honest in your writing: Get to the point, don’t exaggerate, and be accurate.
By the way, do you suppose some morally corrupt people may be honest writers,
but that some saintly people may tend to puff up their writing? Alas, human
character is complicated. Anyway, here are some of the rules of rhetoric that
live in my brain.
Write honestly. What goes
around, comes around. Most of our sins catch up with us before we
revise, and proofread once again. My father once told me that
thinking was the most painful activity in the world. For some reason, most human
brains prefer to do no more than superficial thinking unless survival is
involved. Proofreading and revision, the lowest forms of literary thinking, are
chores we all want to avoid. Nevertheless, proofreading and revision are keys to
improving. Here is a striking example of what revision can do:
A. In the last
sentence of the Gettysburg Address there is a rallying cry for the continuation
of the struggle.
B. In the last
sentence of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln rallied his audience to continue the
struggle against the South.
Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams (The
University of Chicago Press, 1990), page 28.
What intellectual process took place
that transformed sentence A into the more powerful sentence B? The answer is that the author examined
each sentence in the essay and asked the hard questions: What am I trying to
say? Can I say this more explicitly? Is this even true? A puffed-up writer will
fall under the weight of his own bad habits and lack of experience in revising.
It is sad but true: Inflated writing is the result of laziness, deception, poor
attitude, and stupidity. Puff is not a magic dragon.
affectations and fancy words. For example: The second statement follows mutatis
mutandis from the first. The phrase mutatis mutandis (= "with corresponding
changes") is, indeed, an impressive phrase, but it is also baffling to most
readers. Avoid fanciful and pretentious vocabulary. The following extract from an
autobiography of the French mathematician André Weil illustrates just how bad
affective writing can be:
My life, or at
least what deserves this name—a singularly happy life, its diverse vicissitudes
withal—is bounded by my birth on May 6, 1906, and the death on May 24, 1986, of
my wife and companion.
It may be argued that clever
phrasing and curious words make reading more interesting, and to deny an author
their use limits his tools and leads to mundane writing. This is the argument of
a novice who confuses poetry and song lyrics with formal prose. Both of the
previous examples are demonstrations of bad communication, because the words
distract from the ideas. Writers who choose words and phrases like this are
treating writing as an art form much like dancing—as an end unto itself—rather
than as a tool to express ideas.
Samuel Johnson once recalled the
following remark from a college tutor: “Read
over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage that you think is
particularly fine, strike it out." This, I think, is one of the great
pieces of advice for beginners. Whenever a reader begins to notice the writing
instead of the ideas carried by the writing, then the reader is being
4. Stick with the action, not
Maybe this will help: After writing each sentence, imagine your boss, red-faced
and screaming: “What are you talking about? I can’t understand you! Get to the
point!” Minimize, and be concise. Your writing, like mine, is of interest only
for the facts it brings the reader. Even most of those who dedicate their lives
to the craft of writing don’t write particularly well. Bear in mind that your
perspectives are rarely interesting to anyone else. (A striking exception, of
course, is this article.)
5. Use passive constructions
is the classic example of the passive voice: The ball was hit by the boy.
This is fine if the ball is more important than the boy. If not, then change it:
The boy hit the ball. The main objection to the passive is that it takes
slightly more effort to parse.
Notice that ball comes before
boy in the passive construction above. In a long sentence, such
juxtaposition may force the passive voice.
In technical and scholarly writing, the passive is often needed to place
emphasis on a process, rather than on an observer or on the initiator of a
process. Occasionally, the passive
construction does work better than the active—e.g., The book was suppressed
by its own author. When you use
the passive, be aware of it, and know why.
A similar problem occurs with
abstract verbs. The verbs lift,
drop, smash, sever, destroy, for example, create mental images. The be verbs (be, been, being,
am, is, are, was, were) are more abstract and require more effort to
understand. Consider these two
A need exists for greater candidate selection efficiency.
We need to select candidates more efficiently.
Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams, page
The second sentence is simple,
concise, and easy to comprehend. This is generally not a problem with short
sentences, but readers tire quickly when abstract verbs are used too often in
6. Use coordinating
conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, so,
for, and yet) to join parallel
example: Success comes from suffering
through depression and insecurity. This should be corrected to read: Success comes from suffering through
depression and through insecurity. Lack of parallelism is a red flag
that jars many readers. If only we had grammar police. Keep in mind that an
intelligent reader is usually an unforgiving reader.
7. State your strongest
arguments first. Do
you think this is obvious? Aristotle taught the opposite. He also has been
proven wrong through scientific tests of reading retention, but perhaps
Aristotle was referring to oral debates or to the power of immediate persuasion.
Some readers tune out early, so it’s important to capture their attention
occasion, an author is hard pressed to determine which interpretation of a
sentence he or she originally intended.
This occurs when writers splash words onto paper with little
thought—i.e., they write before they think.
constantly ask: What am I trying to say? Surprisingly, often they don’t know.
On Writing Well,
5th ed. (Harper, 1994), page 12.
These rules are no more—and are often
considerably less—than guideposts to non-distracting communication. When
followed, they do not guarantee intelligibility; when applied, they do not
confer the attribute "fine writing." Even “acceptable” writing comes at the
price of inordinate effort. Nothing is simple.
month’s recommended resource is
Toward Clarity and Grace (University of Chicago Press, 1990; reprinted
in 1995), by Joseph M. Williams. The book is a bit dry, but its ultimate value
repays the effort. Gleaning insight is never easy.
you have a grammar question? Comments? Suggestions? Please let me know.