Thursday, December 29, 2011

Concise writing is usually clear writing (24) – Chris Hedges

Here’s another sample of clear, concise writing. It is from a 2008 column by American journalist Chris Hedges (pictured) on the corruption of American journalism.

The past week was a good one if you were a courtier. We were instructed by the high priests on television over the past few days to mourn a Sunday morning talk show host [Tim Russert], who made $5 million a year and who gave a platform to the powerful and the famous so they could spin, equivocate and lie to the nation. We were repeatedly told by these television courtiers, people like Tom Brokaw and Wolf Blitzer, that this talk show host was one of our nation’s greatest journalists, as if sitting in a studio, putting on makeup and chatting with Dick Cheney or George W. Bush have much to do with journalism.

No journalist makes $5 million a year. No journalist has a comfortable, cozy relationship with the powerful. No journalist believes that acting as a conduit, or a stenographer, for the powerful is a primary part of his or her calling. Those in power fear and dislike real journalists.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least 10 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.

See disclaimer.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Insist on clarity! – an editorial

Author Dan Pallotta (pictured) believes we should insist on clarity. He has written a powerful blog post about our misguided toleration of others’ deliberately unclear diction. Read the post here.

The Takeaway: I agree with Mr. Pallotta. I often insist on clarity and I recommend that you do likewise. If you’re not yet accustomed to being assertive, start out with easy encounters. For example: While you are shopping, a clerk approaches you and asks, “All set?” You respond, “To do what?” Nine times out of ten, the clerk will quickly correct his question to “Can I help you find something?” You have gently but successfully shamed an indolent clerk into using the clear, polite, grown-up diction that his job requires. His quick correction proves that (1) he knows darn well that his job requires grown-up diction; (2) he knows how to use such diction; and (3) he avoids using it only out of indolence. If enough of us keep reminding these slackers to speak adult English, they may decide to make it a habit.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A heavy user of mixed metaphors

All writers occasionally distract their readers by inadvertently using mixed metaphors. You do it, I do it, we all do it. But some writers use mixed metaphors heavily.

For example, here is an essay that contains many mixed metaphors. I quote four below (boldface added):

Even a minor foreign policy or economic event like a Greek default or Middle East crisis could reap [sic for wreak] havoc with the precarious interlocking sovereign debt pyramid in the West.

Of course, no nation wants a collapse – especially China – because a western debt collapse and write down is certainly uncharted financial waters and the contagion risks are global.

Consequently, after 30 years of watching, writing and creating protective retirement planning and financial strategies, today I'm finally going to yell “FIRE” inside the closed “financial iron curtain” which is America.

I do not have a crystal ball or inside political information on a specific imminent threat, only the observation that the sovereign debt crisis from Europe, a debt ceiling misstep from the clowns in Washington or a Middle East event could suddenly trigger the collapse. [Clowns in Washington are walking upside down on the ceiling!]

I don’t mean to pick on this writer; many other financial writers are equally heavy users of mixed metaphors.

The Takeaway: Mixed metaphors can distract your readers. In some cases, they make your prose impossible to understand. Ideally, you should have someone edit your copy, because it is difficult to spot your own mixed metaphors.

See disclaimer.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Concise writing is usually clear writing (23) – Lysander Spooner

Here’s another sample of clear, concise writing. It is a paragraph that explains why a highwayman is morally superior to a politician: both rob you, but the highwayman otherwise leaves you alone. This paragraph is from No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority (1870), by Lysander Spooner (pictured), a Massachusetts lawyer, entrepreneur and essayist.

The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber. He has not acquired impudence enough to profess to be merely a “protector,” and that he takes men’s money against their will, merely to enable him to “protect” those infatuated travellers, who feel perfectly able to protect themselves, or do not appreciate his peculiar system of protection. He is too sensible a man to make such professions as these. Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you, as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful “sovereign,” on account of the “protection” he affords you. He does not keep “protecting” you, by commanding you to bow down and serve him; by requiring you to do this, and forbidding you to do that; by robbing you of more money as often as he finds it for his interest or pleasure to do so; and by branding you as a rebel, a traitor, and an enemy to your country, and shooting you down without mercy, if you dispute his authority, or resist his demands. He is too much of a gentleman to be guilty of such impostures, and insults, and villainies as these. In short, he does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least 10 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.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Editing advice from Richard Rhodes

In case you missed it: Richard Rhodes (pictured), author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” recently offered some excellent editing advice in The Wall Street Journal. His advice is especially helpful for beginning writers.

Here’s an excerpt.

The work of writing, I tell [students], isn’t simply copying down their self-talk. If they think so, I say, try transcribing a conversation and see how much is redundant or extraneous.

No, the work of writing is deliberately choosing a voice, a fictional construct, in which to argue or narrate, and then, through draft after successive draft, composing and editing a translation of their self-talk into prose that others can read and understand.

The Takeaway: I have nothing to add except my frequent reminder: keep reading. In particular, spend at least 10 minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly; it will help you follow Mr. Rhodes’ advice more easily.

See disclaimer.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A five-minute fix

I frequently see business writing that (1) confuses and insults the customer and (2) could be fixed in five minutes or less. Here’s an example from an email I received.


Your order has been processed and shipped. You may track your package/s after 8:00pm at or with the following tracking number:

Date Shipped


Tracking Number:

Please note: If no tracking number appears above, your order has been sent via U.S. Postal Service. Please allow 3-5 business days for delivery via U.S. Mail.


Although the company apparently has set up an automated shipping confirmation system, the company has not bothered to set up separate message formats for UPS shipments, FedEx shipments and USPS shipments. Instead, the company sends a confusing “one-size-fits-all” message to all customers.

Five-Minute Fix

If the company had set up three separate message formats, the message I received could have read like this:

We shipped your package 11/07/11 via First-Class Mail. It will be delivered to you in 3-5 business days.

The Takeaway: Intelligent customers understand that good business writing takes time and that your time is limited. They don’t expect perfection. But they do expect you to make easy, five-minute fixes like the example here.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (7)

“God does not much mind bad grammar, but He does not take any particular pleasure in it.”
~Erasmus (pictured)

“Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.”
~Matthew Arnold

“The secret of play-writing can be given in two maxims: stick to the point, and, whenever you can, cut.”
~W. Somerset Maugham

The Takeaway: Keep an open mind. Have a great day.

Thanks to Paul G. Henning, a friend and a clear writer, for pointing out the first two quotations.

See disclaimer.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Concise writing is usually clear writing (22) – Mark Fuhrman

Below is another sample of clear, concise writing. It is the beginning of a chapter on the 1993 death of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster, in The Murder Business: How the Media Turns Crime Into Entertainment and Subverts Justice, a book by former Los Angeles Police Department detective Mark Fuhrman (pictured).

“Here’s a tip that may sound callous. If you plan to commit suicide, do your loved ones a favor and make it abundantly clear. Choose perhaps a bridge during rush hour.

“You may not want to blow your brains out on live television, like disgraced politician Bud Dwyer did, but you really should, out of respect, make sure you have reliable witnesses of some kind.

“But whatever you do, don’t go into a vast park you have no connection to, with a gun not familiar to your wife, with bullets not traceable to your stash, leaving no definitive note, telling no one, promising your secretary you’ll be back shortly, and hope that everybody is able to work it all out after you’re gone. Don’t be in that much of a hurry. Please. Write a suicide note that actually has your fingerprints on it, at least. And don’t tear it into thirty-seven pieces and put it in your briefcase. Especially if you are the Deputy Counsel to a scandal-plagued, power-mad administration.” (Emphasis in original.)

This passage is highly readable; it scores 65.6 on the Flesch Reading Ease test. Although the language is indirect and sarcastic, the passage clearly expresses the writer’s point of view and feelings. It lists a few of the many clues that would have made an experienced homicide detective strongly doubt that Mr. Foster (Bill Clinton’s lawyer) killed himself. It also conveys Mr. Fuhrman’s anger over the handling of this case; later in the chapter, he calls the investigation “almost mind-bogglingly unorthodox.”

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least 10 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.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Jacques Barzun on the evolution of language

Many professional writers admire historian Jacques Barzun (pictured) for his books Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers and On Writing, Editing, and Publishing. In the latter book, he includes this warning:

“There is no getting around it: meaning implies convention, and the discovery that meanings change does not alter the fact that when convention is broken, misunderstanding and chaos are close at hand. True, the vagaries of those who pervert good words to careless misuse seem more often ludicrous than harmful. This might give us comfort if language, like a great maw, could digest anything and dispose of it in time. But language is not a kind of ostrich. Language is alive only by a metaphor drawn from the life of its users. Hence every defect in the language is a defect in somebody.”

The Takeaway: Get in the habit of reading this warning from time to time. I keep a copy of it on my “Why It Matters” page.

Mr. Barzun turned 104 yesterday.

See disclaimer.