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Good Writing

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audience and purpose

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care and imagination

lucidity, simplicity, directness

myths about good writing

Writing and Convention

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SUNY Geneseo's Writing Guide

Lucidity, simplicity, directness

"Vigorous writing," wrote William Strunk, Jr. in the first (1918) edition of that now classic manual, The Elements of Style, "is concise." He continued:

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Strunk may have been remembering Edgar Allan Poe's 1842 description of "The Hollow of the Three Hills," a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne: "Every word tells," Poe noted admiringly, "and there is not a word which does not tell."

Good advice, whatever the source. For as Alexander Pope observed more than a century before Poe's review, "Words are like leaves; and where they most abound,/Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found."

In most student writing, the leaf-to-fruit ratio is too high. Some students fear the blank page (or computer screen); they reduce anxiety by multiplying words. Others mistakenly believe that simple prose reflects simplistic thinking. (More than a few academics share this prejudice.)

Wordiness and redundancy

You can tighten wordy prose quickly by replacing certain unwieldy phrases with single-word equivalents. For example, replace "due to the fact that" with "because" or "since." (For more examples, see Strunk.)

With practice, you can develop an eye for the subtler forms of redundancy. A journalist describes evidence regarding a missing person that was "sufficient enough" for police to call off their search. Obviously, "sufficient" would have sufficed. A student writes, "The reason the framers adopted a Bill of Rights was because they wanted to guarantee certain fundamental freedoms." The redundancy here is less evident. The word "because" (by its nature the prelude to a reason) makes "The reason . . . was" unnecessary. Drop that awkward construction and you get, "The framers adopted a Bill of Rights because they wanted to guarantee certain fundamental freedoms." Now, since the word "to" can carry the sense of "because," you can actually pare the sentence down further: "The framers adopted a Bill of Rights to guarantee certain fundamental freedoms."

Another student writes, "In Mark Twain's novel Huckleberry Finn, the character of Huck faces a moral dilemma." Since the reader knows that Huckleberry Finn is a novel and Huck is a character, the student could have simply written, "In Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Huck faces a moral dilemma."

For a dramatic sense of the difference revision makes, you might try computing the Lard Factor in a few of your sentences. (The term comes from Richard Lanham's excellent book Revising Prose.) After revising a sentence, subtract the number of words in the revised version from the number of words in the original. Then divide the remainder by the number in the original. The Bill of Rights" sentence quoted above contained 18 words in the original; in its final revised form it contained 12. The Lard Factor in the original was therefore .33 or 33% (18-12 =6, 6÷18=.33). The Lard Factor in the original "Mark Twain" sentence was 4÷14 or 29%.

Don't confuse lard with length. Sometimes a long sentence is a necessary evil; if it's grammatically constructed and has effective cadences, it can even be a positive good. (See Care and Imagination and Myths.) As Strunk's advice suggests, numbers alone mean little. It's not many words but unnecessary words that obscure meaning and make prose leaden.

Sentence structure and verb choice

Make the chief actor in each sentence the subject of the sentence, and put the chief action in the predicate (main verb). Look again at "The reason the framers adopted a Bill of Rights was because they wanted to guarantee certain fundamental freedoms." The grammatical subject here is "reason," the predicate "was." But the chief actor is (collectively) "the framers," and their action was to "adopt" a Bill of Rights. The revised sentence--"The framers adopted a Bill of Rights to guarantee certain fundamental freedoms"--puts the actor and action into the subject and predicate, respectively.

Avoid excessive use of the verb to be. Verbs that convey action (e.g., to adopt) generally make for livelier predicates.

Use the passive voice sparingly. In active constructions, the agent or force performing the action of the predicate is also the subject of the sentence. (Example: "An earthquake shook the building." The earthquake does the shaking and is also the subject of the verb "to shake.") In passive constructions, the object or recipient of the main action is the subject of the sentence. ("The building was shaken by an earthquake.") The passive voice has its legitimate uses (see Myths and Strunk), but it's usually wordier (by 40% in our example), and it seems less lively because it replaces the indicative verb ("shook") with to be ("was") plus the verb's past participle ("shaken"). Since the passive voice also makes it possible to eliminate the agent altogether ("The building was shaken"), it may invite the writer to avoid, or the reader to ignore, the question of responsibility. Compare "The village was bombed" with "NATO warplanes bombed the village."

Other things to consider

Good writers use language that is vivid and concrete. They also use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. The philosophical argument that you call "quite impressive," the scene in a play that you label "very poignant," lose nothing by being described simply as "impressive" and "poignant." Is the phrase "in that particular year" any more particular than "in that year"?

Expert writers avoid "experteese." Why adopt a new "methodology" when a new "method" will do? And will it really work any better when "utilized" rather than "used"?

George Orwell on lucidity and politics

George Orwell's 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language" remains one of the best critiques of the modern bureaucratic/academic prose style. (Richard Lanham calls it the "Official Style."). Orwell erroneously thought that he was witnessing the "decay" of English as a language. As any linguist will tell you, a language can't decay. On the other hand, a bad writer can certainly strangle the life from a sentence. Orwell, however misguided about linguistics, correctly recognized that the typical English of officialdom is pallid and bloated; and he identified both the reasons for and the darker consequences of this dead, and deadening, style of writing. Here's an excerpt from his essay.

From George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"

I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. . . . It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations -- race, battle, bread -- dissolve into the vague phrases "success or failure in competitive activities." This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing -- no one capable of using phrases like "objective considerations of contemporary phenomena" -- would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase ("time and chance") that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes. . . . [M]odern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier -- even quicker, once you have the habit -- to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think.