Monday, December 29, 2014

Concise writing is usually clear writing (40) – Christopher Hitchens

The late writer Christopher Hitchens (pictured), a man of rough edges, could be exquisitely moving at times. My favorite passage is this one:
When my father died and was buried in a chapel overlooking Portsmouth—the same chapel in which General Eisenhower had prayed for success the night before D-Day in 1944—I gave the address from the pulpit and selected as my text a verse from the epistle of Saul of Tarsus, later to be claimed as “Saint Paul,” to the Philippians (chapter 4, verse 8):
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report: if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
I chose this because of its haunting and elusive character, which will be with me at the last hour, and for its essentially secular injunction, and because it shone out from the wasteland of rant and complaint and nonsense and bullying which surrounds it. (Source)
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 scatterbrain 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.

Have a healthy and prosperous new year!

See disclaimer.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Happy Christmas to all,
and to all a good night!

Mr. Clarity

Monday, December 22, 2014

Don’t undermine yourself (2)

Writers sometimes undermine themselves in their titles and introductions. Let me give you a quick example:

While surfing for information on measuring the value of public relations, I saw an article with this title:
“My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys… err… PR Measurement Pros.”
I thought:
He sounds foolish, but I’ll give him one paragraph before I decide whether to quit.
His introductory paragraph:
“Not too long ago, PR News Online published a fun piece about PR superheroes. I loved this story because I’ve always wanted to be a superhero. It made me believe that one day, if I try hard enough and excel in my career, I might be able to gain PR superhero recognition and be invited to join the Justice League… OK, OK, never mind; my kids have me grounded enough to know this is highly unlikely. Though I may never gain superhero status, I have devoted some time to searching for a few real life PR superheroes.” (Links in original omitted here.)
I thought:
His use of fun as an adjective makes him sound childish.
In “I’ve always wanted be a superhero,” he uses present perfect tense, which implies that he, a putative adult, still wants to be a superhero.
He incongruously inserts contrived dialog (“OK, OK, never mind”). Apparently he is unaware how blasted annoying this device is, or how fatuous it makes him sound.
His statement “my kids have me grounded enough” sounds like he’s trying to abase himself. How embarrassing.
I turned to another article, by another writer, on the same topic.

The Takeaway: Remember, intelligent readers judge you by your diction and composition. They do it to avoid wasting time. If they notice that your title or introduction makes you sound immature, ill-educated or neurotic, they (correctly or incorrectly) conclude that the rest of your piece will be silly, incoherent, long-winded, tangential and confusing. Therefore they conclude that you are not a credible source of information and they stop reading right there. So give yourself a chance; build your credibility by using good diction and composition, especially in your title and introduction.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

You can say a lot in only 100 words (2)

If you write concisely, you can say a lot in only 100 words or so. Needless to say, you need intelligence, discipline and the courage of your convictions. Here are three examples:

Kathy Shaidle (pictured) on third wave feminists 

“When 20-year-old Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten was raped, murdered, and mutilated by her estranged husband in 1980, she was adopted as a symbol of man’s inhumanity to woman by germinal third wave feminists (who would have cut her dead when she was alive).

“Conveniently mute, impossible to libel, and as easy to configure as Barbies, deceased women—from Emily Davison to the Montreal Massacre’s 14 engineering students—make the best feminist icons. (Unless they’re Muslim.) The third wave’s anti-porn wing inflated Stratten into an ideological sex doll, into which they poured their loathing of Hugh Hefner and lesser spank-mag deities.” (Precisely 100 words) (Links in original omitted here.) (Source)

Jim Goad on rape hoaxes 

“Despite what basic common sense would dictate, we are repeatedly spoon-fed the mantra that we live in a ‘rape culture.’ And despite ample evidence to the contrary, we are told that women never lie about rape.

“Despite the Tawana Brawley rape hoax and the Duke Lacrosse rape hoax and the fact that on any given day you can search the phrase ‘false rape’ on Google News and dredge up countless stories of bitter, scorned, vindictive, psychotic women falsely accusing men of rape, the howling harpies of latter-day feminism and their gelded male worker elves continue to insist that false rape accusations are a patriarchal fiction.

“That’s why the nuclear-reactor-level meltdown of that mossy old rancidly flatulent hippie rag Rolling Stone over an at least partially—and perhaps entirely—fraudulent gang-rape story at the University of Virginia is so exquisitely delicious.” (140 words) (Links in original omitted here.) (Source)

Christopher Hitchens on the origin of religion

“One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion, and one would like to think—though the connection is not a fully demonstrable one—that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.” (120 words) (Source)

The Takeaway: When we write concisely and don’t waste words on circumlocutions, equivocations or evasions, we can say a lot in 100 words or so. One technique for writing concisely is to deliberately write an overlong first draft and then keep reducing it. For example, to write a 2000-word article, I typically write a 3000-word first draft. In successive drafts, I cut 500 words, 300 words, 150 words, and 50 words, leaving a concise, compelling, 2000-word fifth draft. This technique is quicker and easier than it sounds. Try it.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Gobbledygook (6)

Here’s an informative but also entertaining article titled “12 Horrible Gobbledygook Words We Reluctantly Accepted.” It appeared in mental_floss, a great online source of intelligent humor.

An excerpt:

“In 1883, a journalist named Godfrey Turner went on an awesome rampage against purist, writing, ‘What a word! We have here positively the only instance of an attempt to make a noun, by this clumsy inflection, direct out of a raw adjective.’ He wasn’t done with it yet though, going on to write in another publication, ‘whoever first committed to the legibility of black and white that vicious noun-substantive has, it may be hoped, lived to repent a deed that offends forever against verbal purity … among all blundering conceits of modern phraseology, [it] stands distinguished from its misshapen fellows by an unapproachable singularity of malformation.’ ” (Italic and boldface added.)

The Takeaway: Have a great day.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A surprising cluster of circumlocutions

Circumlocution is “the use of many words to say something that could be said more clearly and directly by using fewer words.” Academics, politicians, shyster lawyers, and politicians who are shyster lawyers love circumlocution.

You can imagine my surprise when, glancing for the first time at a punchy online magazine called Spiked (the magazine’s owners spell it “sp!ked”), I immediately spotted three circumlocutions in a single sentence.

It was the last sentence of the first paragraph of an article titled “What private schools teach state schools,” by education editor Joanna Williams.

Here’s the paragraph:
As headmaster of the exclusive Wellington College (fees for boarders: £32,940 per year), Anthony Seldon is remarkably coy about championing the privileges of private education. His report for the Social Market Foundation, Schools United: Ending the Divide Between Independent and State, published this week, is his latest attempt to talk himself out of a job through either abolishing fee-paying schools altogether, or eroding any distinction between the state and independent sectors. Seldon’s defensiveness is driven by the fact that private-school pupils are more likely than their state-educated peers to get better exam results, go to the most selective universities, secure jobs in the elite professions and earn more money. (Boldface added.)

First circumlocution:
Sheldon’s defensiveness
An alternative:
Sheldon cowers
Second circumlocution:
is driven by
An alternative:
Third circumlocution:
the fact that
An alternative:
(Omit these three words entirely.)
And so,
Seldon’s defensiveness is driven by the fact that
Sheldon cowers because
The magazine’s name and layout are so aggressive that a reader might expect to read Spiked for a year without spotting a single circumlocution, insinuation, euphemism, equivocation or evasion. This reader isn’t going to read any further; life is too short.

The Takeaway: Wake up! Be direct!

See disclaimer.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (33)

On Truth and Delusion

“It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”
~Carl Sagan

“When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called a Religion.”
~Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

“The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion.”
~Edmund Burke (pictured)

“All are lunatics, but he who can analyze his delusion is called a philosopher.”
~Ambrose Bierce

“It’s not that girls are delusional, per se. It’s just that they have this subtle ability to warp actual circumstances into something different.”
~Rebecca Serle

“[I]t is difficult to imagine a set of beliefs more suggestive of mental illness than those that lie at the heart of many of our religious traditions.”
~Sam Harris

“To join adult human society, you must either become mad or fake it really well, because adult human society is an asylum.”
~Stefan Molyneux

The Takeaway: “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” ~Robert Frost

See disclaimer.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Nouns into verbs

If you love words, you will enjoy author, speaker and teacher Ralph Keyes (pictured). He is the language columnist for The American Scholar, where he writes a column titled “Back Talk.” He has a light touch; he is entertaining, not tedious. In a recent column he discussed the making of nouns into verbs, including those “tortured coinages that end in ‘ize.’ ”

The Takeaway: Best wishes to my fellow wordies.

See disclaimer.

Thanks to Paul G. Henning for introducing me to “Back Talk.”

Happy Birthday to Joan Didion
80 on December 5

Monday, December 1, 2014

Bits and pieces (3)

Today we present examples of errors that can make you sound ill-educated.

Misuse of prepositions

“This is the first and most important component to problem solving.” (Source)

The natural preposition here is of: “This is the first and most important component of problem solving.”

“In total, you see about twice the number of four-year students (~11 million) than two-year (~6.5 million).” (Source)

The natural preposition here is as: “In total, you see about twice the number of four-year students (~11 million) as two-year (~6.5 million).”

Use of fun as an adjective

“East Coast Grill in Cambridge - very fun place with great seafood/bbq.” (Source)

An educated grown-up would use entertaining, enjoyable, stimulating, or the like. Even rollicking. But not fun.

Non-parallel use of not only… but also

“He’s not only funny, but also he’s intelligent.” (Source)

The correlative conjunction not only… but also must be used in a parallel construction. In the example above, it is not. One correct alternative would be “He’s not only funny but also intelligent.” For additional correct alternatives, see this page in Grammarly Handbook.

The Takeaway: Whenever you are writing something for publication – even if it’s “just” a blog – present yourself as a well-educated grown-up. Have an experienced editor read your copy; that’s what well-educated grown-ups do.

See disclaimer.