Monday, December 9, 2013

Concise writing is usually clear writing (36) – H. L. Mencken

In 1931, Will Durant asked some well-known people to write down what meaning life has for them. H. L. Mencken (pictured) replied with a concise, straightforward 1128-word letter.

Here are two samples, totaling 125 words:
“I go on working for the same reason that a hen goes on laying eggs. There is in every living creature an obscure but powerful impulse to active functioning. Life demands to be lived.”
. . .
“I am far luckier than most men, for I have been able since boyhood to make a good living doing precisely what I have wanted to do – what I would have done for nothing, and very gladly, if there had been no reward for it. Not many men, I believe, are so fortunate. Millions of them have to make their livings at tasks which really do not interest them. As for me, I have had an extraordinarily pleasant life, despite the fact that I have had the usual share of woes.”

For the record, the samples jointly rate a Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) score of 73.6 – easier to read than Reader’s Digest.

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 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.

An editorial comment: The second sample above contains a quick test of whether you really are a writer: Would you write for nothing?

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