Monday, April 29, 2013

Mr. Clarity goofs off (3)

I just saw the 2013 results of the Lyttle Lytton Contest. In this contest, which is run by writer Adam Cadre, each entrant tries to “compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”

The winning entry for 2013 was:
The men greeted each other, wearing various smiles on their faces.
And here’s one of the runners-up:
The stranger rode into town with eyes that said his sixgun would have stories to tell, if it spoke any language other than the guttural tongue of violence. 
And one more:
“This isn’t fair!”, wept Case, who had previously been the team captain but due to events yet to be described was not now.
There’s also a portion of the contest for non-original entries: quotations from news copy or advertising copy that could make hilariously bad openings of serious novels. For example:
Like Venice in Italy, Thailand’s magical Bangkok is built on a wide network of canals. So it should be no surprise that the art of the noodle is equally prized in each. ~Chicken Pad Thai page on
The Takeaway: If you enjoy this sort of thing, read the 2013 results. They include not only the best entries but also Mr. Cadre’s witty comments about how he chose them.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Concise writing is usually clear writing (32) – Dorothy Parker

Here’s another example of concise, clear writing. In “The Lovely Leave,” a short story by Dorothy Parker (pictured), the narrator is a woman whose husband is in the air force during a war. She has not seen him since a 24-hour leave two months ago. During that leave, she was shy and awkward, and she fretted so much about how quickly the hours were passing that she and her husband argued. Then she brooded for two months over having ruined the leave and the memory of the leave. Now she learns that her husband is scheduled for another 24-hour leave, and she silently vows not to repeat her mistake:
“She need not brood over it any more. She had her lesson; she could forget how she had learned it. This new leave would be the one to remember, the one he and she would have, to keep forever. She was to have a second chance, another twenty-four hours with him. After all, that is no short while, you know; that is, if you do not think of it as a thin little row of hours dropping off like beads from a broken string. Think of it as a whole long day and a whole long night, shining and sweet, and you will be all but awed by your fortune. For how many people are there who have the memory of a whole long day and a whole long night, shining and sweet, to carry with them in their hearts until they die?” (Source)
The paragraph is classic Dorothy Parker, in her slice-of-life style and with her exquisite craftsmanship. We readers guess that the wife’s failing is habitual. We induce a lot about her temperament. We experience her vow and the emotions that accompany it.* We hope that she will succeed but we fear that she will fail again. We are moved. That’s an impressive payload for 143 words. Very concise writing.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least ten minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly, such as Dorothy Parker. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful diction and the careless, vague, infantile diction (sample here) that besets us every day. The topic you select for your reading doesn’t matter, because you’re reading for style not content. 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.

P.S.: The word concise means “free from all elaboration and superfluous detail.” But be careful before you drop words into the “elaboration and superfluous detail” bucket. For example, in the last sentence Mrs. Parker could have omitted the five words “with them in their hearts.” And she could have decided not to repeat that long, cumbersome phrase, “a whole long day and a whole long night, shining and sweet.” The sentence would have read like this:
“For how many people are there who have such a memory to carry until they die?”
Same meaning as what she did write, but with far less emotional power. What she did write captured the natural, rambling flow of thought and the sentimental way in which we sometimes savor our happiest thoughts.

See disclaimer.

*One critic said that when you read Dorothy Parker, you always get the emotions naked.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Straight talk: an example (15) – Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

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

Here’s a well-known quotation from the French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (pictured):

“To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be place[d] under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.” (Source)

Readers may or may not agree with Mr. Proudhon’s description of government, but they can easily understand it.

The Takeaway: We are often startled by straight talk. We react this way because we have been habituated to euphemistical, effete, evasive diction (sample here). 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.

P.S.: Some writers mistakenly think that they should always try to avoid using the passive voice, that passive verbs are always weak. This passage provides a good counterexample; no one would call it weak, even though it contains 66 passive verbs.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The five most popular posts

This week is the blog’s fifth anniversary (founded April 20, 2008). I thought I would show you the five all-time most-visited posts. Yes, that’s an obvious thing to do on an anniversary – however, because this is an educational blog, I pay close attention to which topics are attracting readers the most.

Here are the five posts:

“Having said that.” Most writers who use this fad expression confuse and irritate their readers. (October 1, 2008)

The danger of euphemism. How a nurse used a politically correct euphemism in order to increase the self-esteem of an incarcerated serial rapist; the euphemism allowed the rapist to escape. (November 21, 2008)

Empathetic and persuasive writing. Dale Carnegie analyzes a sales letter by telling us – line by line – how he reacts as a reader of the letter. Do this kind of analysis yourself and make your letters (emails, ads, web site) more empathetic and persuasive. (August 30, 2010)

A common fallacy. We writers should diligently strive to avoid using fallacies. One of the more common fallacies is “cherry picking.” (February 7, 2011)

Mixed metaphors. Thomas L. Friedman is a heavy user of mixed metaphors. He appears to be genuinely unaware of how clownish his writing sounds. But with three Pulitzers on his resume, Mr. Friedman can get away with such carelessness. Unfortunately, you and I cannot. (February 25, 2013)

The Takeaway: Thank you for your attention – today and over the years. I welcome your suggestions on topics to cover; please email me at joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Best to you.

See disclaimer.

Monday, April 15, 2013

An intentional and humorous mixed metaphor (2)

The British humorist P.G. Wodehouse (pictured) was a master of the intentional mixed metaphor. I’ve discussed examples in two posts (1, 2). Here’s another example:

The well-to-do bachelor and boulevardier Bertie Wooster has grown a mustache while his valet, Jeeves, was away on vacation. Bertie knows that Jeeves, who is more conservative than his employer, will disapprove of the mustache as soon as he sees it, and will immediately try to persuade Bertie to shave it off. Bertie explains to the reader:

“You know how it is when two strong men live in close juxtaposition, if juxtaposition is the word I want. Differences arise. Wills clash. Bones of contention pop up and start turning handsprings. No one was more keenly alive than I to the fact that one such bone was scheduled to make its debut the instant I swam into his ken....” (Source)

The Takeaway: For readers of the novels and short stories of P.G. Wodehouse, a mixed metaphor is a delight; the sillier the better. For readers of what you and I write, a mixed metaphor is at best a distraction, at worst an irritation. If possible, have someone edit your copy, because it is difficult to spot your own mixed metaphors.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (19)

In my occasional posts of writers’ quotations, I have not attempted to have a theme for each post. Today I do have a theme: the propagation of stupidity in Western culture.

“Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.”
~Albert Camus (pictured)

“We are in the process of creating what deserves to be called the idiot culture.... For the first time, the weird and the stupid and the coarse are becoming our cultural norm, even our cultural ideal.”
~Carl Bernstein

“In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.”
~Herman Melville, in Moby Dick

“We should ponder here the state of modern American journalism: endowed with intelligent and able people who are quite willing to suppress what they know to be valid opinions in order not to endure hostility from their stupider and less able colleagues.”
~Dominic Lawson, on political correctness

“There are only two ways of telling the complete truth – anonymously and posthumously.”
~Thomas Sowell

“Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune.”
~Noam Chomsky

“The thought came upon me, as it has done quite a lot this past few years, that I shall likely end up in a labor camp. I can’t keep my mouth shut; I can’t clap along with the Kumbaya; and I can’t pretend assent to propositions that seem to me to be false. In the world we are fast heading into, that makes me camp fodder for sure.”
~John Derbyshire

“You may turn into an archangel, a fool, or a criminal – no one will see it. But when a button is missing – everyone sees that.”
~Erich Maria Remarque, in Arch of Triumph

“I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without [any printed matter] to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”
~Newton Minow, in a famous 1961 speech to television broadcasters

“Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.”
~Henry David Thoreau

The Takeaway: Let us avoid participating in the propagation of stupidity.

See disclaimer.

Thanks to Paul G. Henning for pointing out the Carl Bernstein quotation.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Helen Sword on “zombie nouns”

In several posts (for example, here), I have discussed the uninhabited clause,* a clause with a non-human subject. For example, “Saturn is a planet” is an uninhabited clause. If you overuse uninhabited clauses, you will tire your readers. To stay interested, most readers need to see a human subject once in a while.

In an excellent piece in The New York Times, Helen Sword (pictured) describes an extremely tiring form of non-human subject: the zombie noun.

“Nouns formed from other parts of speech are called nominalizations. Academics love them; so do lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers. I call them “zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings...”

The Takeaway: Learn how to avoid using “zombie nouns.” Read the article here.

See disclaimer.

*My coinage, so far as I know.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Academics’ code words

Previously, I have posted amusing lists of journalists’ code words and physicians’ code words. Here’s an amusing list of academics’ code words:

“It has long been known” = I didn’t look up the original reference.

“A definite trend is evident” = These data are practically meaningless.

“While it has not been possible to provide definite answers to the questions” = An unsuccessful experiment, but I still hope to get it published.

“Three of the samples were chosen for detailed study” = The other results didn’t make any sense.

“Typical results are shown” = This is the prettiest graph.

“These results will be in a subsequent report” = I might get around to this sometime, if pushed/funded.

“In my experience” = once.

“In case after case” = twice.

“In a series of cases” = thrice.

“It is believed that” = I think.

“It is generally believed that” = A couple of others think so, too.

“Correct within an order of magnitude” = Wrong.

“According to statistical analysis” = Rumor has it.

“A statistically oriented projection of the significance of these findings” = A wild guess.

“A careful analysis of obtainable data” = Three pages of notes were obliterated when I knocked over a glass of pop.

“It is clear that much additional work will be required before a complete understanding of this phenomenon occurs” = I don’t understand it.

“After additional study by my colleagues” = They don’t understand it either.

“Thanks are due to Joe Blotz for assistance with the experiment and to Cindy Adams for valuable discussions” = Mr Blotz did the work and Ms Adams explained to me what it meant.

“A highly significant area for exploratory study” = A totally useless topic selected by my committee.

“It is hoped that this study will stimulate further investigation in this field” = I need more grant money to live off of.

The Takeaway: Have a great day.

See disclaimer.

Thanks to Paul G. Henning for pointing these out.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Concise writing is usually clear writing (31) -- Ian McEwan

Here’s another great example of concise, clear writing. These are the first 156 words of Solar, a 2010 novel by English novelist Ian McEwan (pictured). Mr. McEwan is a fine craftsman and his craftsmanship is especially strong in his openings.

He belonged to that class of men – vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever – who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so. And it helped that some women believed he was a genius in need of rescue. But the Michael Beard of this time was a man of narrowed mental condition, anhedonic, monothematic, stricken. His fifth marriage was disintegrating, and he should have known how to behave, how to take the long view, how to take the blame. Weren’t marriages, his marriages, tidal, with one rolling out just before another rolled in? But this one was different. He did not know how to behave, long views pained him, and for once there was no blame for him to assume, as he saw it. It was his wife who was having the affair, and having it flagrantly, punitively, certainly without remorse.

In so few words, we have already learned quite a lot about the unlikable protagonist, Michael Beard. This is typical McEwan: it is easy to digest vast amounts of information from his prose without feeling overloaded. By the way, if you like novels and have not yet read Ian McEwan, I urge you to give him a try. I especially recommend Atonement – my favorite novel from any author.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least ten minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly, such as Ian McEwan. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful diction and the careless, vague, infantile diction that besets us every day. The topic you select for your reading doesn’t matter, because you’re reading for style not content. 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.