Just as we should look our best whenever and wherever we meet people, including at home with our family—I’ve always thought it curious that with the people we love most in the whole world, we don’t care how sloppy and unkempt we look—it’s imperative we look our best on the written page. Writing is done for other people; even personal journals have an underlying longing that someone, somewhere will read our confessions and dreams. And in business, it’s often the employer’s first look at you.
“If we had to say what writing is, we would define it essentially as an act of courage.” Cynthia Ozick
Writing is tough. Let no one tell you differently. But help is at hand, beginning with Fowler’s (Fowler’s Modern English Usage) five rules in choosing our words:
- Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
- Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
- Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
- Prefer the short word to the long.
- Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.
And we can follow George Orwell’s advice in Politics and the English Language:
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
These rules may be last century, but they’re absolutely au courant. They are simple, but they take time and effort to apply.
“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” Thomas Jefferson
One of the greatest sins of technical writing, for example, is wordiness: final authority, high accuracy, basic fundamentals, currently anticipated, present status, necessary prerequisite, significant meaning, meaningful significance. The adjectives are unnecessary, diminishing the effectiveness of the noun rather than enhancing it. And it annoys readers. Technical documents are long and complex enough, so every extraneous word, sentence or paragraph just adds bulk where bulk is not needed. So apply the following principles of economy:
- Delete words meaning little or nothing: very, all.
- Delete words repeating the meanings of other words: every in each and every.
- Delete words whose meaning readers can infer: that someone offers is not needed after suggestion
- Replace a phrase with a word: listen to and think over becomes considers
- Change negatives to affirmatives when appropriate: not consider becomes ignore
Even though concision is not the ultimate aim of a technical document, which is to accurately and clearly present the subject, it helps achieve this aim by enhancing reader understanding and cutting unnecessary bulk. Simple ways of doing this are by changing:
- have been noticed to occur to have occurred
- due to the fact that to because
- on the occasion of to when
- concerning the matter of to concerning
- Energy needed to power our industries and homes will in years to come be increasingly expensive in terms of dollars and cents.
to Energy will eventually cost more.
- is able to to can
- prior to to before
- subsequent to to after
- at this point in time to now
- There is no reason not to believe that engineering malfunctions in nuclear energy systems cannot always be anticipated.
to Engineering malfunctions in nuclear energy systems can be anticipated.
“The ill and unfitting choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding.”
Equal partners in sinning against the language are the corporate and bureaucratic worlds. Their aim is often to obscure the meaning, not clarify it. To state the problem as Mark Sutcliffe did (“CEOs thrive on ‘value-added’ doublespeak”, Calgary Herald, September 2, 2006), mimicking an executive’s/bureaucrat’s words: “…wouldn’t it be a value-add if going forward, we could push the envelope and, as a deliverable, have a vision to think outside the box and leverage our core competences to create some negative growth in the use of hackneyed business lingo?” The words change, but the jargon and clichés remain rampant. I cringe when I hear it and my red pen hovers when I read it, but when it comes from the top, staff feel pressured to use jargon as a status symbol.
Our education systems, particularly universities, are notorious for encouraging the use of long words and convoluted language. Then management courses reinforce the lesson by rewarding its practitioners with admiration in the executive suite and career advancement. The result? A display of ‘knowledge’ supersedes the communication of ideas and information.
“The English language has far more lives than a cat. People have been murdering it for years.” Farmers’ Almanac
Luckily, English is a strong language that, like buildings and bridges, has tolerances built into it to survive the shifting winds and changing fashions of society’s trends. It can—and does—absorb words from other languages that better express a human sentiment, and it can—and does—create whole new vocabularies for emerging technologies and branches of knowledge. But its foundation is still short, strong words and the active voice.
Sadly, that foundation has eroded in modern writing with way too many long, heavy words in passive, limp sentences that make readers sink into lassitude as their interest evaporates. As Rudolf Flesch (1911-1986) observed, “If you go through any newspaper or magazine and look for active, kicking verbs in the sentences, you will realize this lack of well used verbs is the main trouble with modern English writing. Almost all nonfiction nowadays is written in a sort of pale, colorless sauce of passives and infinitives, motionless and flat as paper.” The writer’s job is to make the words jump off the page, not lie there ‘flat as paper’.
So to recapture some of the strength of English, use:
- do instead of conduct
- speed up instead of accelerate
- find out about instead of acquaint yourself with
- make up instead of fabricate
- look at instead of scrutinize
- stands for instead of represents
And use the active voice most of the time to make the story more interesting—and not leave the reader in a drowsy fog of confusion. The following is a beautiful example of the active crushing the passive, as quoted in The New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage:
Memo to President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II:
Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all federal buildings occupied by the federal government during an air raid for any period of time for visibility by reason of internal or external illumination. Such obscuration may be obtained either by blackout construction or by terminating the illumination. This will, of course, require that in building areas in which production must continue during a blackout, construction be provided, that internal illumination may continue. Other areas, whether or not occupied by personnel, may be obscured by terminating the illumination.
And the president’s revision:
In buildings where work will have to keep going, put something across the windows. In buildings where work can be stopped for a while, turn out the lights.
The passive also obscures responsibility for an action, and I’m sure good companies want to be responsible for their actions. So banish “The decision was made…”, and replace it with “Company X decided…”, or better yet, “We decided…”, the we being the company that wrote the document.
“I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published.”
Now that you’ve written the document, it’s time to edit it. Ideally, someone else should to do the job because the effort of writing often leads you to protect your words fiercely, no matter how misshapen or redundant they are. Good editing is like tact: No one notices it unless you don’t have it. And a good editor makes the writer look good, enhancing the message while remaining unseen.
Having said that, as a seasoned editor I keep the cartoon’s message in mind to curb that strong drive to change modify the text for the sake of editing it. The message, after all, ultimately belongs to the writer.
The desire to look our best on the written page has diminished of late, it seems to me, along with the desire to look our best when we’re out in the world. Nevertheless, the desire persists, making me glad that I can always recognize a good sentence—and I’m over the moon when I can occasionally write one.
Let Editor’s Ink help you look your best.
Brava!!! Well said (& written).