Monday, July 19, 2010

Concise writing is usually clear writing (14) – Joseph Mitchell

Here’s another good example of clear, concise writing. It’s a selection from My Ears Are Bent (1938), by the late Joseph Mitchell (pictured). Using only 339 words, he tells us a great deal about the career and personality of a New York pickpocket.

Harry Lewis, an unobtrusive, well-mannered fellow from the Lower East Side, has been one of the country’s most accomplished pickpockets for thirty-five years. Frequenting such places as theatre lobbies, rush-hour subways, and skyscraper elevators at noon, he has slyly pulled wallets from thousands of pockets. He has worked in many Eastern cities and a “yellow slip” at Police Headquarters shows that he has been arrested at least fifty-three times; the slip is by no means complete.

He is forty-eight years old and he looks years younger, despite the fact that he is almost completely bald. The terse slip shows that he has worked under six aliases. The first time he was arrested he called himself Noah Berns. That was in 1901, and he was charged with being an incorrigible child. The last time he was arrested he called himself Harry Lewis. On this occasion he was standing in a hallway of the National Broadcasting Company’s studio on the eight floor of the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center. At the time of his arrest, according to the complaint, he “has his left hand in the left trouser pocket of an unknown man.” The charge was jostling.

A court stenographer telephoned me about Lewis. He said he thought Lewis was “unusually bright for a pickpocket.” I went up to talk with the pickpocket in the Seventh District Jail, a grimy structure beneath the Sixth Avenue elevated tracks at 317 West Fifty-third Street. Lewis was in a cell, waiting to be sentenced. When he was taken before Magistrate Michael A. Ford in West Side Court he refused to say anything except, “I guess I’m guilty.” In his cell he had two tattered wild west magazines and four packages of cigarettes. The stenographer said that when the jailer came to take him out of his cell to stand before the judge, he turned down a page in one of the wild west magazines to mark his place. After putting in his guilty plea he went back to his cell and resumed his reading.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least ten minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful, grown-up diction and the careless, infantile diction that besets us every day. If you would like a list of recommended writers and works, please email me at joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

See disclaimer.

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