On Good Writing
Speech at Ursinus College
At my local recycling center, the first bin is labeled “commingled containers.” Whoever dreamed up this term could have taken the easy way out and just written “cans and bottles.” But no, the author opted for a term out of the bureaucrat’s style book. He chose the raised pinky elegance of a phrase distant from normal English. He also added poor spelling (“comingled is spelled two different ways), and pointless redundancy (the concept of “co” is already embedded in the word “mingled”). How did they pack so many writing errors into two words of modern environmental prose?
George Orwell, at the beginning of his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” made clear that he thought the language had become disheveled and decadent. That was in 1946. Intending shock, Orwell offered five examples of sub-literate prose by known writers. But these examples don’t look as ghastly to us as they did to Orwell, because language is so much worse today. If you doubt this, I offer a few examples.
In plain English, what does it mean when students “achieve a deficiency” or reach a “suboptimal outcome?” It means they failed. A suboptimal outcome is even worse in at a hospital. It means the patient died. The airline industry sometimes speaks of a hull loss. What they mean is that one of their planes just crashed. Here’s more twisted language. Your doorman is now known as an “access controller”, and a receptionist is a “director of first impressions.” Hospital bills can be filled with such language, How about a “thermal therapy unit” (an ice bag) or a “disposable mucus recovery unit”, also known as a box of Kleenex.
But the institution that wins the coveted convoluted language award is the government—any government in any country. A U.S. document speaks of “ground-mounted confirmatory route markers.” Translation: “road signs.” In Oxford, England, city officials decided to “examine the feasibility of creating a structure in Hinksey Park from indigenous vegetation.” They were talking about planting a tree to get some shade. I’m sure you all know Joyce Kilmer’s famously awful non-poem. As you no doubt recall, it says, “Poems are made by fools like me/But only God can make a tree.” Today, Kilmer might have to write, “Versified and rhythmic non-prose verbal arrangements are fashioned by people of alternative intelligence such as myself, but only the divine entity, should he or she actually exist, can create a solar-shielding park structure from low-rise indigenous vegetative material.”
The words of bureaucrats may twist tongues, but language on today’s college campus can truly twist minds. Many prominent people, particularly academics, have invented new ways to torture the English language. My friend Denis Dutton, a philosophy professor who runs the Arts & Letters daily site on the Internet, launched a bad-writing contest to honor these masters of gobbledygook.
Judith Butler, a well-known professor at the University of California–Berkeley was the grand prize winner for this impenetrable sentence.” The move from a structuralist account . . . marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony, etc., etc.” The sentence rattled on that way for 94 words. Another well-known professor, Martha Nussbaum, said Butler’s prose “bullies the reader into granting that, since one cannot figure out what is going on, there must be something significant going on.” Other professors defended Butler on the grounds that English specialists, like technical analysts, are entitled to use private language that non-specialists can’t understand. Think about that: The professors were taking pride in prose readers can’t understand.
Alas Sokal, a professor at NYU, perpetrated a wonderful hoax at the expense of a postmodern magazine, submitting a nearly impenetrable article arguing that gravity is a social construct. Social Text magazine printed it as a serious piece, so Sokal had to explain to the editors, if you think gravity isn’t real, I invite you to walk out my window and test the theory; I live on the 21st floor.
Several kinds of writing heresies are thriving in the universities. One is that the ability to write is so unimportant that it should be expected only in the humanities department, maybe just in English courses. Another is the romantic notion that rules, coherence, grammar and punctuation are unimportant. What counts is the gushing of the writing self. One adherent of this school of thought told me that we should no longer talk about misspellings, but personal spellings. The self decides what is right and wrong. Writing in the Public Interest magazine, Heather Mac Donald reported that “students who have been told in their writing class to let their deepest selves loose on the page and not worry about syntax, logic, or form have trouble adjusting to their other classes—the ones in which evidence and analysis are more important than personal revelation or feelings.”
Grammar and clear expression are under another kind of attack as well. Rules, good writing, and simple coherence are sometimes depicted as habits of the powerful and privileged. James Sledd, professor emeritus of English at the University of Texas, writes in the textbook College English that standard English is “essentially an instrument of domination.” If proper English is oppressive, what could be more logical that setting out to undermine it? English Leadership Quarterly ran an article urging teachers to encourage intentional writing errors as “the only way to end its oppression of linguistic minorities and learning writers.” The pro-error article, written by two professors at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, actually won an award from the quarterly, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English. So you can now win awards for telling the young to write badly. (YU CAN NOW WIN A WARD IF YU CAN TELL YOUNG TO BADLY WRITE.)
Some campuses have evolved a separate tongue, marked in large part by stretching the meaning of words to make speech sound like punishable action. Simple criticism, for example, emerges as “intellectual harassment,” or perhaps semantic violence.” And if funding for mostly black schools is too low, well this is “intellectual genocide.” When Lani Guinier’s controversial plan for proportional voting drew protests, she accused her critics of “non-traditional violence.” “Non-traditional” is a common weasel word these days.
“Non-traditional students” refers to older students. One feminist referred to a friend who was having an affair with a “non-traditional man.” She meant that he was not a member of the chattering classes. He was a plumber.
Political speech is a mess as well, larded with euphemism and evasion. In 1990, I was startled to learn that GOPAC, the Republican pac controlled by Newt Gingrich, was shipping words to Republicans around the country so that the speeches of local politicians would sound like Newt. GOPAC supplied positive words to use when referring to the GOP: courage, moral, children, choice and personal, for instance, and ugly words to pin on Democrats, including bizarre, collapse, red tape, sensationalists and anti-flag. These words presumably could be combined in any order, “collapsing anti-flag sensationalists,” for instance, or “morally courageous pro-flag children.” Out of curiosity I looked up Newt’s last major speech, delivered to the Heritage Foundation, and found that it really wasn’t a speech at all. It was a collection of 238 GOPAC buzzwords, lightly connected by a few ordinary non-toxic words.
One cause of bad language is the influx of intentional ambiguity from the world of advertising. What was the meaning of Nike’s famous slogan, “Just Do It”? Did it mean, don’t procrastinate, don’t debate your options endlessly, just seize the moment and act? Or did it mean, forget about scruples and conscience, go get what you want?
This kind of ambiguity shows up in the prose of the right-to-die movement. Take the phrase “aid in dying.” Does it mean moral support for a dying person, help in committing suicide or putting a sick patient to death without consent? It means whatever you take it to mean. All around us is prose intended not to convey meaning but to mask and distort.
Many awful expressions of the day emerge out of misguided compassion. An example is a long New York Times discussion of a famous writer’s plagiarism. The Times could not bring itself to use the P-word, but talked delicately of “unacknowledged repetitions” and “inappropriate borrowings.” It did not want to hurt the plagiarist’s feelings. The idea of offending or hurting feelings can lead to the greatest corruption of language. It can undermine the straight, simple prose that communicates ideas, images or yes, even feelings to a great number of people.
So how should we write and restore the integrity of good English? Candor, clarity and sincerity are important keys. All of us are weary of writers who dance around their subject, protecting friends, bending facts to push a cause. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” Orwell wrote. When there is a gap between one’s real and declared aims, one turns instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms.” On the compassion issue, be polite and fair, but do not gear your argument to the expected sensitivities of others or the demands of political correctness.. Write accurately and say what you believe is true.
Work to avoid the dead idioms that we all seem to carry in our heads. Paul Johnson says “Most people when they write, including most professional writers, tend to slip into seeing events through the eyes of others because they inherit stale expressions and combinations of words, threadbare metaphors, clichés and literary conceits.. This is particularly true of journalists.”
But one reporter-turned-novelist played a large role is reshaping American prose. As a teenager, Ernest Hemingway joined the reporting staff of the Kansas City Star. Unlike most big-city papers of the day, which featured colorful stories–many vastly exaggerated and some simply untrue–the Star was a stickler for truth and good prose. The stylebook handed to Hemingway on his first day listed 110 rules written to force reporters to use plain English, shorn of clichés. Many of the rules were similar to those developed later of Strunk and White, and the many list rules offered in writing classes today: “Use short sentences. Use vigorous English. Never use old slang. Eliminate every superfluous word.”
“Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing,” Hemingway said in 1940. “I’ve never forgotten them.” One rule that Hemingway particularly took to heart was “Avoid the use of adjectives, especially such extravagant ones as gorgeous, grand, magnificent, etc.”
Adjectives all but disappeared in Hemingway’s style, and often in the style of the generation that looked to him for guidance. Adverbs too, because both adjectives and adverbs are often used to tell readers how to feel. What the reader feels should arise out of action and dialogue, Hemingway thought, not out of stage directions set down by the author. Another factor in the American newspaper influence on the national literary style was the high cost of cables sent home by foreign correspondents. More words were deleted and the style became even more spare. One anecdote about cablese: When Cary Grant was abroad, a feature writer cabled him from New York to doublecheck his age. “How old Cary Grant?” asked the message. Grant cabled back, “Old Cary Grant fine. How you?”
Hemingway showed his first effort in cablese to Lincoln Steffens, He said: “Steffens, look at this cable–no fat, no adjectives, no adverbs—nothing but blood and bones and muscle. It’s a new language.” Hemingway was exaggerating, but not by much. The old florid Victorian prose was being flushed from the language. Hemingway insisted on brevity, economy, simplicity, strong verbs, and short sentences. “Prose is architecture,” he wrote, “not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.” Because of Hemingway and the newsroom style he injected into American writing, quoted lines now simply end with the words “he said” or “she said,” not he averred, she expostulated or he huffed.
Write in your own voice. This sounds simple, but it really is hard. Many of us have been trained to write in the style of l9th century English gentlemen. And our minds are clogged with the clichés, idioms and rhythms of other people. Kurt Vonnegut says that the writing style natural to you will almost always be the speech you heard as a child. He grew up in Indiana, where, he says, “common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin.” He wrote: “I myself find I trust my own writing most and other people seem to trust it most, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.”
When I started my column in U.S. News & World Report 18 years ago, I decided I would write in a conversational style. This meant I would never use words such as “nonetheless,” “moreover,” “albeit” and “to be sure,” because they are in nobody’s speaking vocabulary. It also meant that I wrote as though I were addressing each reader personally, talking about something that interested us both. My model here, believe it or not, was John Madden, the football announcer. Madden is the most famous TV football analyst, not because he knows the most, though he may, but because he sounds like a friend on the next barstool watching the game and sharing his thoughts with you.
After a month or so, I realized that readers of columns don’t just follow the words. They listen to the background music too. Readers want to know who you are. Is the writer consistent and fair? Does his take on the world relate to me? Is he humorless or playful? Do I want to spend time with him? Is he in the pocket of some cause or political party?
Vonnegut discusses this music factor in terms of caring. “Find a subject you care about and what you in your heart feel other people should care about. It is this genuine caring and not your games with language which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” That’s true, but caring doesn’t tell the whole story. Putting your whole self into your prose is even more important.
Apprentice writers are told to learn the rules of writing. Yes, learn those rules, absorb them fully, and then be ready to break them on a moment’s notice. Think of how Tom Wolfe burst upon the national scene. Esquire assigned him a piece on the custom-car culture. Wolfe said he was blocked and couldn’t do it. Since Esquire had already committed art and pages to story, Wolfe sent in some hyper notes of hysterical analysis, unspellable howls and more exclamation points than most of us see in a year. According to Wolfe, Esquire removed the salutation of the letter to his editor and ran the whole thing as an article. It was brilliant. By breaking every known rule of writing, Wolfe created a new style that worked.
Or take Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham jail.” All of us are warned against run-on sentences. When I started as a reporter, the AP would not print a lead sentence of more than nineteen words. The key sentence in Dr. King’s letter is 347 words long, a powerful analysis of injustices suffered by African-Americans. The sentence goes on so long that the reader’s impatience about the sentence—when will it end—begins to fuse with the powerful statement about the justified impatience of suffering blacks. The rhetoric used by Dr, King perfectly reflects the substance of what he is saying, at a length no writing teacher would approve. It was a stunning rhetorical triumph.
When you write, how will you sound? Many of us come under the spell of a great writer and imagine our job is to sound like him or her. Or we try on different prose styles like articles of clothing. I remember writing testy letters to the power company in the style of Dashiell Hammett, and lordly letters to the editors in the style of Bill Buckley, complete with the mandatory use of “charismatic” and “paradigm, “ both unusual words at that time, plus a delicately inserted “mutatis mutandis” to call due attention to my Jesuit-induced Latin. Not long after, I absorbed two basic rules: don’t try to sound like other people, and learn all the big words you can, then strive mightily never to use them if a short word will do.
Don’t be afraid to rip up your essay if it doesn’t sound like you. “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it,” said Elmore Leonard. As you write, it may gradually dawn on you that you don’t really agree with your own words. This has happened to me more than once, usually on deadline, in the middle of an argument that made perfect sense in my mind but looked odd on the page.
The late Christopher Lasch said something sharp in this point in his book, “The Revolt of the Elites.” He said that only in the course of arguing “do we come to understand what we know …we come to know our own minds only by explaining ourselves to others.” Exactly. When a friend launches an argument and your rebuttal starts to sound tinny to your own ears, it shouldn’t be hard to figure out that something’s wrong—usually that you don’t really agree with the words coming out of your own mouth. The same is true of writing. Arguing in person, or in print, can rescue us from our own half-formed opinions.
Do not use the phrases “I believe” or “I feel.” A friend who teaches at Duke tells me she has banned both phrases in her writing class. She did this because so many students failed to realize that the expression for an opinion is not an argument. A professor quoted in a recent book on rhetoric makes the same point. A student essay simply said that the writer didn’t like Odysseus at all. The professor scrawled on the essay, “But where is your argument?” No reader is persuaded simply because the writer states an impression or a feeling.
A few years ago, I taught a summer class in non-fiction writing at Southampton College on Long Island. I was very impressed by the quality of the class and their abilities. But they had a group flaw. They wanted to write primarily about their own feelings. One day I said, write me 2000 words on any subject, but don’t use the word “I.” Many in the class balked at this and wrote their non-I essays with great difficulty. Confusing an opinion with an argument has one big advantage. The text is uncriticizable, since the writer can always say, “It’s my prose and I’m entitled to my opinion.”
But writing isn’t a personal or private enterprise. It’s an attempt to change consciousness and change the world. In his book The Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard Weaver says that the right to utter a sentence is one of the world’s greatest freedoms. It is the “liberty to handle the world, to remake it, if only a little, and to hand it to others in a shape which may influence their actions.” Speech and writing constitute what Weaver calls “the office of assertion,” a force adding itself to the other forces of the world. Think about that. Writing is power. A force in the world. If you write well, you can have an impact.