Writing words worth reading 2. Five guidelines
May 16, 2019
In the second of three blogs on writing words worth reading, Jeff Aronson offers some simple guidelines.
In the previous blog I suggested three principles to help you write words worth reading:
- Find a simple tone of expression, or voice, that feels natural to you; don’t overdo it, hoping to impress, or thinking that it’s expected.
- Try to write coherently, in such a way that the reader will never be held up at any point, wondering what you mean, or at the end be in doubt about what you intended to impart.
- Try to follow well-worn grammatical guidelines that no-one will complain about, but break the rules when it feels right.
I also stressed that there are no easy ways to achieve these ends. I recommended writing again and again, subjecting what you write to critical examination by those whose views you respect, and taking to heart the comments they make.
However, some help may come from simple usage guidelines. Which brings me to another writer I admire.
In 1946 George Orwell wrote an essay titled “Politics and the English Language”. He suggested that “slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”. It is fashionable today to belittle Orwell’s essay as excessively prescriptive and old-fashioned, but in his discussion of the writings of his time he formulated useful pieces of advice, which, perhaps ill-advisedly, he called rules.
George Orwell, 1903-50
So here are five guidelines, developed from Orwell’s rules and points made by other writers. Because it is so important, and generally ignored, I have adapted Orwell’s last piece of advice and promoted it to a preamble.
Here are five guidelines to help you write words worth reading; ignore them if what you have written doesn’t feel natural to you.
- Don’t use a long word when a shorter one will do. In technical texts this may be hard, but note that this guideline suggests replacing one word with another, not one word with a longer phrase of shorter words. There is nothing wrong with using long technical words if you can expect your readers to understand them, and little point in rephrasing them using longer replacements. You might write “fingerprints” rather than “dermatoglyphics”, but “erythema” is better than “redness of the skin”.
- Cut out unnecessary words. Journalists sometimes refer to this as “kill your darlings”, a phrase attributed to the American author William Faulkner; the darlings are generally unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. But don’t cut just for the sake of cutting; make sure that what you are cutting is really unnecessary. Sometimes a telling adjective or adverb, for example, can transform a bland idea into something striking or soften an otherwise absolute statement.
- Don’t use the passive when you can reasonably use the active. This piece of advice is often roundly criticized by modern experts. They point out that there are times when the passive should properly be used, and is indeed preferable. For instance, consider a notable line from Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman (1949): “Attention must be finally paid to such a person”. Miller could have written “People must finally pay attention to such a person”, but it wouldn’t have been so striking and memorable as the passive form he used. Even modern critics of this guideline tend to use the active voice themselves. Take Geoffrey Pullum, a noted expert, whose articles I recommend. I have just reread his classic paper “The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax”, looking for examples of the active and passive voices. I soon stopped counting instances of the former and found only a dozen of the latter. It’s a good principle always to consider whether you might make a passive construction active. Very often the result is clearer and shorter.
- Avoid clichés. This means recognizing a cliché when you see it. And that means being able to distinguish useful stock phrases or expressions from those “regarded as unoriginal or trite due to overuse” (OED), such as “at this moment in time” and “more research is needed”. Some phrases lie uneasily between the two extremes. “New paradigm” is one such; it is often used simply to mean a new idea, even when it’s not, and often by those who have not fully understood Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific paradigms. When I searched for the phrase in the titles of papers indexed in PubMed I got 2251 hits, starting in 1968, eight of them in January 2019 alone. Can so many truly new paradigms have been discovered?
- Think about the rhythm of the prose. For example, above, in guideline 3, I originally wrote “Consider, for example, a famous line …”, but changed it to “For instance, consider a notable line …“, preferring the dactylic rhythm (long-short-short) of the latter.
In my next blog I shall offer thoughts about reading to write and recommend a list of further reading.