Monday, April 30, 2012

Physicians’ code words

Two years ago, just after the death of J.D. Salinger (who was often, incorrectly, called a “recluse” by journalists), I published a list of journalists’ code words. Here’s a list of physicians’ code words.

“ ‘It’s all in your head.’ This is a code phrase for ‘You are desperately sick, but I have no clue as to why. Because we physicians can’t define whatever it is that you have, your insurance company does not insure it. Please pay by credit card or check before you leave.’ ” (Quoted from an essay on health information by historian Gary North.)

“Quack.” This code word conflates competent physicians that politicians don’t like (such as the physician who saved actor James Coburn from rheumatoid arthritis) and incompetent physicians.

“Folk medicine.” Code for medicine that politicians don’t like.

“Spontaneous remission.” What your physician will say if you have been cured by a “quack” or by “folk medicine.”

“Discomfort.” Code for pain experienced by anyone other than the doctor and his loved ones.

The Takeaway: If you are looking for a role model for clear thinking, speaking and writing, you should generally not select a physician.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (11)

[L]ogic has become more mathematical and mathematics has become more logical. The consequence is that it has now become wholly impossible to draw a line between the two; in fact, the two are one. They differ as boy and man: logic is the youth of mathematics and mathematics is the manhood of logic.
~Bertrand Russell

“By measuring individual human worth, the novelist reveals the full enormity of the State’s crime when it sets out to crush that individuality.”
~Ian McEwan

“Words can mean anything you want – unless you want to communicate with them.”
~Bill Bonner

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

See disclaimer.

Monday, April 23, 2012

An online readability calculator

In many posts, I have advised writers to test the readability of their drafts. Readability testing is a fast, free and reliable way to learn how to increase readability, which in turn increases clarity.

The world’s favorite readability test, Flesch Reading Ease (FRE), is included in Microsoft Word. You can run FRE as part of a spell-check. For details on how to interpret FRE scores, read this.

And there’s an online readability calculator that does even more. After it calculates the readability of your draft, it identifies the least-readable sentences in the draft. That’s a tremendous help, especially if you are a beginning writer. 

The Takeaway: The fastest way to improve the clarity of your writing is to improve the readability of your writing. Get in the habit of checking the readability of every draft. You’ll be surprised and delighted to see how quickly your writing improves. I wish you the best of success.

Thanks to Daphne Gray-Grant, a great writing coach, for pointing out the online calculator.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Time out for some Thurber

The author and cartoonist James Thurber (pictured) once offered a list of six rules for comedy writers. He said he wrote the list “after receiving dozens of humorous essays and stories from strangers over a period of twenty years.”

Here’s one of Mr. Thurber’s rules:

3. If the writer has decided to change the name of his protagonist from Ketcham to McTavish, Ketcham should not keep bobbing up in the last five pages. A good way to eliminate this confusion is to read the piece over before sending it out, and remove Ketcham completely. He is a nuisance.

The Takeaway: Enjoy the other five rules.

See disclaimer.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Concise writing is usually clear writing (28) – T.C. Boyle

Novelist T.C. Boyle is a highly skilled craftsman whose writing can instruct and inspire writers of all kinds and skill levels. He is a master of concision. For example, on Page 74 of his novel When the Killing’s Done is an exquisitely executed flashback:

[Dave LaJoy, a man in his forties, is in the cabin of his boat, brewing coffee.]

“The kettle is just coming on to a boil. Outside, the rain has picked up again, drilling the deck, and he’s suddenly transported back thirty years to the cabin of his father’s boat anchored off Santa Cruz Island, a day like this, his mother at the stove making toasted cheese sandwiches – Swiss on rye with mustard and sauerkraut, her specialty – so that the air grew dense and sweet with the smell of them, and he with a cup of hot chocolate and a stack of comics, cozy, cozy and safe and enclosed. Like now. Like right here and now.” (99 words)

To insert this memorable flashback, Mr. Boyle uses fewer than 100 words, including the transition into the flashback (“he’s suddenly transported back thirty years”) and the transition out (“Like now. Like right here and now.”) You will rarely see a flashback this concise.

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, April 12, 2012

Practical tips for writers (3) – C.S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis (pictured), author of The Chronicles of Narnia, managed to write an individual reply to almost every fan letter he received. In a remarkable letter to a young American fan he included a wealth of writing advice. Two excerpts:

“Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.”

“Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean ‘More people died’ don't say ‘Mortality rose.’ ”

The Takeaway: Read and heed the rest of the advice from C. S. Lewis.

See disclaimer.

Monday, April 9, 2012

In speech and in writing, be yourself

People who hear what you say or read what you write can’t help judging you by your diction and grammar. That’s because people usually assume that you have deliberately chosen your diction and grammar. So, if you unconsciously or unintentionally imitate a sociolect, your listeners or readers will assume that you are a member of the group that speaks that sociolect.

For example, poseurs speak and write gobbledygook. They do it in an effort to appear knowledgeable. But intelligent listeners and readers perceive that the gobbledygook is gobbledygook and therefore that the poseurs are poseurs.

Unfortunately, gobbledygook has become fashionable, and a lot of knowledgeable people are imitating the poseurs. Intelligent listeners and readers assume that these people are poseurs, too. So, if you are knowledgeable, don’t imitate poseurs.

Here are three more warnings:

If you are intelligent, don’t imitate bimbos.

If you are honest, don’t imitate shysters.

If you are straightforward, don’t imitate politicians.

The Takeaway: If you wish to be taken seriously, don’t imitate the sociolects of poseurs, bimbos, shysters or politicians. Be yourself. Talk like yourself. Write like yourself. You know you have the courage to do it. Do it.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (10)

[On why he wrote] “Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.’ ”
~Kurt Vonnegut (pictured)

“Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.”
~Esther Freud

“I’ve been to a lot of places and done a lot of things, but writing was always first. It's a kind of pain I can’t do without.”
~Robert Penn Warren

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

See disclaimer.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Straight talk: an example (11) – John Taylor Gatto

For educational purposes, we writers should occasionally read, listen to, or view an example of straight talk. It doesn’t matter whether we agree or disagree with the statements – what matters is the way the statements are expressed. This exercise can, by contrast, make us more aware of the evasive diction that besets us every day, so we won’t unconsciously imitate it.

An example of straight talk

Author John Taylor Gatto (pictured), a critic of government schools, is widely known for his straight talk. Here’s a sample:

“Maturity has by now been banished from nearly every aspect of our lives. Easy divorce laws have removed the need to work at relationships; easy credit has removed the need for fiscal self-control; easy entertainment has removed the need to learn to entertain oneself; easy answers have removed the need to ask questions. We have become a nation of children, happy to surrender our judgments and our wills to political exhortations and commercial blandishments that would insult actual adults. We buy televisions, and then we buy the things we see on the television. We buy computers, and then we buy the things we see on the computer. We buy $150 sneakers whether we need them or not, and when they fall apart too soon we buy another pair. We drive SUVs and believe the lie that they constitute a kind of life insurance, even when we’re upside-down in them. And, worst of all, we don’t bat an eye when Ari Fleischer tells us to “be careful what you say,” even if we remember having been told somewhere back in school that America is the land of the free. We simply buy that one too. Our schooling, as intended, has seen to it.

Mandatory education serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them into servants. Don’t let your own have their childhoods extended, not even for a day. If David Farragut could take command of a captured British warship as a pre-teen, if Thomas Edison could publish a broadsheet at the age of twelve, if Ben Franklin could apprentice himself to a printer at the same age (then put himself through a course of study that would choke a Yale senior today), there’s no telling what your own kids could do.” (294 words)

The Takeaway: Many of us are startled by straight talk. We react this way because we have been habituated to euphemistical, effete, evasive diction. I advise you to occasionally read, listen to, or view some straight talk. By contrast, it will help you remain consciously aware of evasiveness – and therefore less likely to unconsciously absorb and imitate evasive diction.

See disclaimer.