Category Archives: writing

On Passive Voice, Adverbs, and Generally Writing Like a Weasel: Own Your Ideas

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Don’t Be A Weasel: Own Your Ideas. Let me start didactically (before backing off just a bit): Weasels use the passive voice. Weasels use adverbs.

“Mistakes were made.”   Wow. If ever there were a transparent evasion of responsibility for screwing up, this is it. I googled the phrase to identify who said it, and found an entire Wikipedia entry on the subject, with far too many politicians quoted as cheesing out with this phrase than I can devote space to identifying. The phrase is classic evasion in the passive voice. While it acknowledges error (almost always under circumstances in which error is undeniable), it deflects blame from the speaker. Now, this is not the place for me to expostulate on my belief that almost every politician who has used this phrase would have gotten into a whole lot less trouble simply by fessing up. That is a matter of public relations, not writing. My point here is to you as a writer. If you believe in what you are writing, write it. Write it directly, not passively.

The passive voice is a bête noir of writing stylists everywhere.   I’m not necessarily jumping on the bandwagon that condemns the passive voice for, well, its passivity. Sometimes passivity is what you want. I’m more concerned here with your communication. If you use the passive voice to express your thoughts and opinions, it will be unclear to your reader that in fact these are your thoughts and opinions.   Try this one: “There is an argument that the earth is round.” (OK, flat earthers, step aside.) What is a reader to make of this? It certainly posits the existence of an argument. But whose argument? What does the writer think, what is he or she trying to convey about the argument? Its mere existence? Well, in some circumstances it might be adequately revelatory to identify the existence of an argument. But if I’m reading a paper on the shape of the earth, I would sure like to know what the writer thinks. Passive voice deprives me of this.

Verbs unmodified. And while we’re on the subject of weasels . . . .   What is with adverbs? Generally I don’t like them. Truthfully, they don’t usually add a whole lot, at least expressly, to the meaning of a sentence. Candidly and frankly speaking, they tend to be ways of softening what you are trying to say. And that, absolutely, is really a problem. It’s a problem in writing and in speech that I think translates to our social and interpersonal relations: People don’t like to be direct.

Why not? Because they don’t mean what they say? If that’s the case, they shouldn’t say it at all. More likely, I think, adverbs are used as a means of conflict avoidance. Soften the opinion, soften the directness, and you are less likely to invite disagreement and debate. But is that actually useful (especially if you are writing and – in a rare difference with speech – physically removed from your readers, so conflict – at least immediate conflict – is impossible)? Adverbs drive me nuts. (OK, I frequently use them myself, but I have been trying really hard to give up that habit.) And they drive me nuts because their common use obscures the strength of a writer’s (and speaker’s) thoughts. Adverbs keep the reader guessing.[1]

It’s worth reiterating my main point in Chapter One; speak well, write well. If you use a lot of adverbs in your (weaselly-, conflict-evasive) speech, this tendency, like all of your other oral tics, will find its way into your writing. [2] So as you work to improve your speech that will improve your writing, perhaps you should consider stepping up to your opinions and stating them directly.

Now look. There are plenty of times when you want to qualify what you write, times when you want to soften an assertion, provide for the possibility of alternatives, give space for other points of view. If this is what you meant to do, say it! There is nothing wrong with writing: “This is what I think, except for . . . .” Or: “This is what I think. Other people think differently. Here is why I think I’m right.” Or: “This is what I think based on my research so far. Further research might lead to different conclusions.” In each of these cases I, the reader, can know precisely what the writer thinks, how strong the writer’s beliefs are, and as a result can determine whether I agree or disagree. Straightforward qualification is just that – it is not weaselly. I, as reader, cannot know what weasels think.

Adjectives Are Like Caviar: Use Sparingly. In the beginning was Hemingway. OK, maybe not in the beginning. But Hemingway really created the modern spare and direct kind of writing I’m advocating here. Read A Farewell to Arms. Count the adjectives. Or, again to quote Mark Twain: “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” Adjectives are the cockroaches in the dark corners of your writing.   They are crutches. They fill space. They distract. They attempt to deprive the reader of independent thought. They clutter. They strain to infuse the vapid with meaning. Phew.

OK, so perhaps I’ve overstated the case. I don’t say that you can’t ever use adjectives. What I will say is that, when you do use them, think about them as you would any other word, and consider why you are using them and whether they are necessary, by which I mean, whether they add to what you already have written. Adjectives are the refuge of the bad writer precisely because they come so easy.

As a practical matter, I would advise that you write your first draft without adjectives. This will take some thought and self-monitoring. When an adjective creeps in, as inevitably it will as the words flow from your fingers, stop and delete it. Or go back and delete all of your adjectives once you have finished your first draft. (Don’t worry – you won’t forget them. One of the problems with adjectives is that, like an annoying tune, they remain stuck in your head.) Read your work adjective-free.   You now have nowhere to hide. You will readily see if you have said something worth saying.

When In Doubt, Keep Them Out. You may start to add some adjectives back – carefully, intentionally, and sparingly – only after you engage in the rewriting exercise that follows, on a second or third rewrite at the earliest. And, when you do, be mindful of how you use them. Make sure they add something to what you are writing, something that the reader would not otherwise understand from what you have written. If they don’t, keep them out. If you’re not sure whether they add or not, they don’t. Really. I have yet to hear a reader of anybody complain about the absence of adjectives (except perhaps in bad Hemingway imitations.)

Avoid Quotations. “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” Well, I’m not always in agreement with Ralph Waldo Emerson, but he was spot-on here. Quotations are the refuge of the cowardly and the lazy. Cowardly, because using someone else’s words lets you avoid owning your ideas (weasly, again). Lazy, because it precludes you from having to take complex ideas and present them in your own words. Probably for these reasons, a lot of really poor writing is characterized by the overuse of quotations.

Now, I never say never (or at least almost never). There are certain times when quotations are necessary or desirable. You will note that I (ironically) began this admonition to avoid quotations with a quotation. But you have also seen quotations – often extensive – throughout this book. These quotations serve as examples, and it is perfectly ok to use quotations when you are using them to exemplify or illustrate a point. Related to this is the analysis of quotations – which I’ve also done. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for example, to engage in a literary critique without using some quotes.

Quotations are also acceptable when you are telling a story that requires the use of somebody else’s words. In Chapter [ ] I will give an example from Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. Johnson’s own words (and the words of contemporaries) were necessary in order for Caro to develop the characters and show them as they were. This is why novelists write dialog – it more powerfully expresses their characters than mere description could. Nothing that Caro could have made up would have been as powerful as the quotations.

Finally, quotations are fine if they are famous – or at least uniquely appropriate – and you are using them for color. That’s how I use the Emerson quote at the beginning of this section. But, again, this should be done sparingly or your writing will look silly and mannered.

[1] There is a parallel in speech about which I shall rant for a moment. How many times have you asked somebody a question to receive the answer: “I’m not sure.”? Literally, that means that the speaker is not certain of the answer. But what does he really mean? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Why doesn’t he say “yes” or “no?” Perhaps because he thinks the answer will make you unhappy. So he dissembles. Does this help answer your question? No, of course not. The same uncertainty with which you began remains. Is it communication? Obviously not, except for the possible conclusion that the speaker doesn’t want to communicate. Conflict-avoidance phrases tend not to further the enterprise of communication.

[2] Sorry – another rant on misuse. When did ”verbal” and “oral” come to mean the same thing? People regularly use “verbal” when they mean “oral.” Get it straight.

Lawrence Mitchell

Write to the Music: Rhythm and Writing — Some Examples

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Today’s post is a bit long, but the length is necessary I think to provide appropriate examples of my topic, rhythm, in writing.

The Cadence of Sentences and Paragraphs. Among the attributes of really good writing that most writing teachers don’t talk about is rhythm.   Speech has a cadence. You know this even if you don’t think about it. If you are excited, your sentences and words might be short and choppy. If you are pensive, you might use longer sentences, drawn out at a slower pace, perhaps more attention to your vocabulary. If you are bored, you might employ monosyllabic sentences. Think about this during your next conversation. How do you feel? What are you trying to convey? How does the rhythm and cadence of your speech contribute to this? Or not?

The same factors are at play in writing. Recall the passage from David Foster Wallace’s essay I analyzed in an earlier post. There I parsed the paragraph by number of words in each sentence, the comparative length of sentences as the paragraph grew and receded, and even the way words were used and repeated. There I wrote of the way Wallace uses this syntax to convey a sense of the anxiety he is feeling as he is driven to the Illinois State Fair. It is precisely the rhythm of the paragraph that helps to create and convey this anxiety. Try this:

“I am anxious.”

“I. Am. Anxious.”

Do you see the difference? Remarkable, really, how just a little punctuation can completely change the way a sentence feels, and thus the “volumes you mean” to convey without using any more words. Or maybe you do want more words. Perhaps you are somebody who deals with anxiety by talking a lot. That is your style, and you may well be able to convey the same feeling differently. I’m not prescribing here any particular way of doing it. Only that you be mindful of the way your syntax – your rhythm – can be a potent tool in your writing kit.

Rhythm in writing may be more typically associated with fiction and poetry than with non-fiction, but I’m here to argue that it is just as important in the latter. (Wallace’s essay is non-fiction.) You may not be developing a fictional character but there are characters in non-fiction writing, even if the only character is you. Remember, writing is self-presentation, and even if what you are writing is a research paper, something of who you are inevitably comes across.

Let’s take an example from a speech written by one of America’s greatest speakers (which meant he was also a pretty great writer), Martin Luther King’s 1963 address at the Lincoln Memorial, “I Have a Dream.” Let’s take a paragraph from relatively near the beginning:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rocks of brotherhood.

The opening sentence tells us of the urgency of the matter before the audience. How do we get this feeling of urgency? Read the paragraph aloud. Do you see what happens when you recite the last three sentences, each of which begins with the phrase “now is the time?” It’s like a drumbeat. Now is the time. Now is the time. Now is the time. And on. And on. A drumbeat. Insistent. Compelling. Urgent. The first sentence is a little more than half the length of the next two, but each of the sentences is fairly short. Perhaps more to the point, only 14 of the 52 words constituting those three sentences exceeds one syllable, and only 7 are as long as three syllables. Rhythm? You bet.

Now let’s look at a passage about two-thirds of the way through the speech, immediately before King builds to its stunning climax with his description of his dream, the part of the speech that everybody knows. King has just acknowledged that many of the listeners have come to Washington (or to the speech) from terrible experiences – -trials, tribulations, police brutality, discrimination. He knows they are damaged. He knows they have suffered. Yet they must return home, they must return to face the same horrors that brought them to Washington in the first place. What can King do to comfort them? What can he do to give them the strength to return? He admonishes them:

Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us now wallow in the valley of despair.

First, the message, grounded deeply in theology. But then the rhythm, then the feeling, then the even terser, shorter, sharper drumbeat. Go back. Go back. Go back. There’s a reason that military bands and drum corps were used for so long to drive soldiers into battle. King is employing the verbal equivalent of a drum corps to instill in his listeners the spirit, the will, the courage, and the strength. Yes, his words matter. But imagine if he had said the following:

Go back to Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, and the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Reads kind of like a lecture, right? The emotional impact of the rhythm is gone, merely be reconstructing the sentence. Why is this? I’m not a psychologist, so cannot identify the specific mechanisms at work here. But I am an empathic person who can identify the way in which certain patterns of speech and writing affect most people. King’s empathy was huge, and he got it spot on. So use that empathy – -use everything about which I have been writing – to your advantage in your writing (and in your speaking).   Rhythm is a key instrument in engaging it.

Just to finish up, look at the rest of the paragraph. After the cadence of states, he hits a rim shot – “knowing.” Knowing what? That things will be changed. He brings an abrupt end to the cadence, and then concludes with the same kind of faith with which he began. A powerful setup. And one which concludes the speech but for King’s immortal description of his dream.

By the way, the order of the speech is terribly effective, too. King ends the speech before he really ends it, for the paragraph I quote above really ends the speech. Then comes all the dream stuff. Had King submitted the speech for editing to an average writing teacher, he likely would have told him either to cut the dream stuff entirely or to move it up before the conclusion.

But imagine if King had delievered the “I have a dream part,” and then concluded by telling his followers to go home? The remarkable, ringing, historic sounds of “I have a dream” would have dissipated. The power of the vision, the sound of the speech, would have ended on a very different note. By concluding the speech before his final flourish, King brilliantly allowed for the speech finally to end in a swirl of vision, beauty, and emotion, leaving his listeners charged, and his place in history confirmed.

Rhythm on a Larger Scale — the Rhythm of Your Essay.  Here’s another example, this one drawn from the work of biographer Robert Caro.[1] I mentioned Caro in an earlier post as one of three writers who have profoundly affected me. Frankly, I think there is no better writer in the English language. I’m not one who indulges in hero worship, but Caro is a writer in whom I stand in simple awe. Now look, I’m a normal human being, and sometimes – often? – when I read the work of some celebrated writer, I feel a bit of jealousy and think that I am just as good. Not so with Caro. No jealousy. No envy. And I know I could never be as good. To me, reading Caro is looking at the Mona Lisa, listening to late Beethoven Quartets, observing the beauty of a sunset. Really, I think he’s just that good.

So this example comes from the third volume of Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, Master of the Senate which, quite deservedly, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Caro is telling a story of the way Johnson firmed up his political support in Texas. Oilmen had not wholly been comfortable with the liberal Johnson. And of course oilmen – and their money and influence – were extremely important in Texas politics. Johnson found an opportunity to gain their trust and support by successfully opposing – and being credited for opposing – the renomination to the Federal Power Commission of a liberal, New Deal democrat, a man committed to oil and gas price regulation for the benefit of working people and, in Caro’s account, a public servant of selfless dedication and integrity – Leland Olds.

The story takes a dense 70 pages to tell. It is highly detailed, complex and, while engaging, can lead the reader to lose sight of the point. But I want to show you three places where Caro – using very short paragraphs in an essay of otherwise long ones – keeps the reader focused and very effectively nails the point home.

The first is the opening paragraph:

Another quality that Lyndon Johnson had displayed on each stage of his marge along the path to power was an utter ruthlessness in destroying obstacles in his path.[2]

Wow. That one-sentence paragraph certainly throws down the gauntlet. That is a big accusation, and one that requires real proof. You have no indication when you begin this series of three chapters how long, detailed, and comprehensive it will be. Caro sets you off with a verbal punch in the gut, one that sustains for some time.

But the story is not quite enough. About 20 pages in, after writing what in another context might be considered a hagiography of Olds, Caro quotes a contemporary as to how much the oilmen hated Olds.   Caro then quotes John Connally, then a Texas lawyer for the oil interests, at some length, describing how by defeating Olds’s renomination, Johnson could “get in with dozens of oilmen – to bring very powerful rich men into his fold who had never been for him and were still suspicious of him. So for Lyndon this was the way to turn it around: take care of this guy.”

And Caro simply writes: “And Lyndon knew how to take care of him.” [3] Before another 30 dense pages on how he did it. It is an ugly 30 pages. Johnson didn’t simply defeat a nomination – he destroyed a man, engaging in character assassination using old and unsubstantiated rumors, implying things about Olds that simply weren’t true, taking aspects of Olds’s life out of context and displaying them in the most ugly light possible. Johnson wins. Olds loses. Everything. And then, after this long, detailed story, Caro gives us this:

One other incident connected with the hearings [on Olds’s renomination] perhaps deserves mention. It occurred during a brief recess. Leland Olds was standing in the corridor outside the hearing room, talking to his wife and Melwood van Scoyoc, when Lyndon Johnson emerged and started to walk by. Then he stopped, came up behind Olds, and put his hand on his shoulder.“Lee,” he said, “I hope you understand there’s nothing personal in this. We’re still friends, aren’t we? It’s only politics, you know.”[4]

 I’ve taken you through a fair amount to get to this point, but this is brilliant writing in every possible way. Start with rhythm, but this time the rhythm of the whole story. Long, detailed, complex. But at key points in the story, Caro slips in a zinger. And look how it conveys the point. We start with Caro’s assertion of Johnson’ ruthlessness. We reach a point where Johnson has an opportunity to get something he wants. We see him destroy another human being in the process. And then Caro shows us Johnson as utterly oblivious to the evil he has done.

The last paragraph quoted above is particularly skillful. Caro begins it coyly – he’s playing with us: “One other incident . . .perhaps deserves mention.” Seriously? Perhaps? Caro’s been waiting for two and half volumes to give us this little vignette For it captures pretty much his entire attitude toward Johnson. I can’t imagine anybody reading that paragraph after the preceding story and failing at least to begin to despise Johnson with the depth of Caro’s dislike. And yet all Caro has done is present the facts.

Now, most of us won’t have a character like Lyndon Johnson about whom to write. But the point remains. You can employ rhythm and syntax to make your point emotionally and forcefully.

[1] It really is only coincidence that I follow King’s speech with excerpts from a biography of the man perhaps most responsible for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

[2] Robert A. Caro, Master of the Senate (New York; Vintage;2003) p. 232

[3] Id., pp. 247-8.

[4] Id., p. 303.

Lawrence Mitchell

Mindful Writing: A Word about Drafts

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“Let me see a draft.”   “We hang you at dawn.” These are roughly equivalent phrases when they come from a boss or a teacher and you take them at face value. Allow me to clarify.

When a supervisor asks you for a draft, that person is not really asking you for a draft. She is asking you for a finished product. Seriously. So why, you ask, did she ask for a draft? Simple. Because what you think of as a draft and what she thinks of a draft are as different as night and day (or apples and oranges or any other trite metaphor you like). In case you doubt me, by the way, the same general rule holds true among academics. One of the most amusing faculty customs is the “works-in-progress” session. The idea is for a scholar to present her work to peers before it’s finished and ready for publication. Now hear this: No scholar would ever present a work in progress unless she considers it to be substantially complete.[1]

Why not? Is the request a sham? No. But there are two reasons never to submit a draft you don’t believe to be your best work. First, no matter how hard she tries, your supervisor will form an opinion of your work based on the draft. She can’t help it. It’s human nature. You may not receive a grade or a review until the final draft. But anything less than your best effort – even if she knows it’s just a draft — will reveal to her your weaknesses. Remember, writing is a form of self-presentation. Submitting what you consider to be a draft is like showing up for class straight out of bed and in your pajamas.

The second reason is utilitarian. Unless you are taking a writing course, your supervisor does not want to spend valuable time fixing your writing (or, worst case, making it comprehensible enough to be useful). She wants to engage with your ideas. If your “draft” is insufficiently refined, it will be hard for her to identify your ideas, much less help you to improve them. I know I reached a point after a few years as a teacher where, if I had trouble understanding a student’s paper in the first page or so, I simply handed it back and told him to resubmit it when it was finished. Only at that point would I consider it a draft I could work with. And I wasn’t being tendentious. You cannot work with what you cannot understand.

So please – submit only what you consider to be your best work, even if you are asked for a draft.

[1] That said, good scholars will revise their works after these sessions for substantive critiques.

Lawrence Mitchell

Good Writing: A Simple Cover Letter

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Yesterday I extolled the virtues of direction and simplicity.  Today I provide an example:

I’m going to use a simple letter as an example– in this case, an email – sending a contract from one business partner to another to be signed by the latter. I’m making this choice for a few reasons. One is that you likely are going to write simple letters like this more frequently than you are going to write lengthy volumes. Another is that, as you will see, such a seemingly simple task requires more attention than you might think. A third is personal. More than 30 years ago, as a brand new lawyer, I drafted such a letter (we didn’t have email back then) for a partner at the firm. I was a good writer, or so I had been told. My grades in college and law school confirmed it. Heck, even my friends told me I was a good writer. And the letter was only a couple of sentences long. So, imagine how I felt when the draft was returned to me – blood red! Angry ink all over the page. It is a moment I have never forgotten, and a lesson in writerly humility I have internalized.   Remembering that embarrassed awakening so long ago, I present this lesson more gently to you.

Here is the text of an email:

“I have attached the contract. Please sign it and return it.”

Simple enough. But have you communicated with your reader? Here are a few questions your reader might have after reading what you wrote: Which contract is this? Where do I sign it? Does it matter what color pen I use or whether I virtually sign it with a computer program? Would you like me to return it as an email attachment in Word (or some other program), a PDF (or some other form), by express delivery, or by regular mail? If the latter, to what address should I return it? And when do you need it?

That’s enough to show you the inadequacy of the email. It fails as communication because it assumes far too much of the reader, assumptions about the reader’s knowledge which are unreasonable. So let’s revisit this email written properly:

Dear Gomez:

I have attached the contract between Addams Family, Inc. and me to provide my services as a writing instructor for your sales force. Please print the attachment and sign it on behalf of Addams Family, Inc. on the signature line on page 3. You may return it as a signed PDF attachment by email, or send it by Federal Express to our offices at 1313 Mockingbird Lane, Munsterville, NY 13666 no later than October 31, 2014.

Thank you for your attention. I look forward to working with you.

Best regards,

Herman Munster

You see the difference? Not only is it more formal and therefore more businesslike, but it also provides specific instructions to Gomez, leaving no question as to what to do. All of this information might have been in Herman’s head when he wrote the first email, but Gomez had no way of knowing any of this. By empathizing with Gomez – by putting himself in Gomez’s place – Herman has succeeded in communicating fully, simply, with no more words than necessary. Gomez will be grateful, and the deal will be completed.

Now let’s go back to self-revelation. How have you portrayed yourself? In the first, one-sentence email, you have portrayed yourself perhaps as sloppy, offhanded, and even inconsiderate because you have sent an obviously rushed note with no thought to Gomez’s needs.   Gomez will not be impressed with you, might be annoyed, and at worst might reconsider his intention to work with you as a business partner. The second email is entirely different. Here you are thoughtful, professional, considerate, and careful. You also convey confidence. As simple as the subject is, you have demonstrated your mastery of it. Who wouldn’t want to work with somebody like you? And Gomez will be grateful for the care and time you took.

Lawrence Mitchell

Writing in the Present: Writing Past Writer’s Block

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The Power of Now. A really effective way to get past writer’s block is to just sit and write whatever starts coming out. But this is also a way to make yourself a better writer. Think about it.   As I’ve previously noted, many people who fear writing wind up writing rather bizarrely. I’m not sure why this is, but I suspect that some of it has to do with the relative permanence of writing. If you’re going to put your thoughts in a form that stays around, you seem to think that you need to do that in a formal manner. But why? All you’re trying to do is to communicate. And good communication is good communication. So if you write what you say, you will avoid a lot of stilted formality.

You will also achieve far better self-presentation. When you speak, you are expressing who you are. When you engage in rococo formal writing, you conceal who you are. Writing as you speak reveals you far better.

And by writing this way, you are writing in the present. Yes, your words will last as ink or pixels. But you are writing to express thoughts and emotions you have at the time you are writing, not in the future. The words you set down express the present. And they present who you are at the moment you are writing. By speaking your writing, you have a much better chance of presenting that reality than if you labor over words. (In case you were wondering, this is also true of papers you might write for school or memoranda for work. Your personality always creeps into your writing.)

Writing is Thinking. There is something else you will quickly realize if you take my advice and just start writing what you say. Well, first, you’ll stop talking after a little while and the connection will be just between your brain and your fingers. You won’t be suspected of madness should somebody walk into the room. But there’s something far more important that will happen. You will be amazed to see what you know. The reason is simple. Writing is a thought process. As you begin to write, as the words start to flow and ideas with them, the act of writing begins to tap your subconscious and brings out lots of things that are buried there. Some of them may have little to do with what you ultimate present as your final product. But most of them will.

I know this because I have done it and it works. I have written thousands of pages in my lifetime.   But I have never really known what any book or paper of mine was about until I had at least a first draft.   What I have had were ideas, usually based on reading and research, ideas about the kinds of thing I wanted to write about, maybe some ideas about what I might say that I at least thought was novel enough to commit to writing. Most of the time, the ideas I originally had were not even present in the final product. But the ideas that I developed by writing were always far better, and far better formed, because of the process I used to get there.

Do NOT Outline. I told you we were going to break some rules. I’m pretty sure that all of you have been taught, at one time or another, to outline your papers before you write them. Do Not Do This. I mean it. Don’t. Nothing will faster destroy the creative, flowing, thought process that is writing than attempting to restrict and contain your ideas within some ridiculous ordinally-ranked structure.

Now, I am not telling you never to outline. I have no problem with you outlining once you have written a draft. At this stage of your writing process, you will already have enjoyed the benefits of writing as thinking, you will have allowed your ideas to flow and begin to take shape, and you very likely will have a draft that looks like a bit of a mess. So at this stage, outlining what you’ve written might be helpful. It will allow you to rearrange, it will allow you to think about what you’ve said, it might even generate some new ideas, and it will likely help your rewriting.

But do not outline before you write. I only did this once, and have lived to regret it. As a young academic, I had written a couple of scholarly papers that achieved some success. But my work was becoming somewhat more complex, and I thought it might be a good exercise to outline a paper I was thinking about writing. So I did. I have never had more trouble getting a piece of writing finished. And while the end product was published, I consider it the worst thing I’ve ever written, candidate number one for expulsion from my written record were such a thing possible.

I suppose it’s fair to ask whether the fault lay more in the outline or in the ideas. I’ve given this some thought. The ideas were fine. In fact the ideas in this paper were the genesis for an entire book I wrote ten years later. Nope, I’m sure it was the outlining.

This makes perfect sense once you understand your writing itself to be a form of thinking and essentially the creative process itself. Even scientists who must perform replicable experiments, which necessarily follow steps and rules, start out with some sort of hypothesis that likely didn’t come from the structured steps of an experiment. Creativity – and thinking is creativity – cannot be cabined that way. So don’t do it.

I do have to correct one misstatement. A few paragraphs ago I wrote that I outlined only once in my life. Actually, I tried to do it one other time. The second time I tried, I got about three headings into the outline and then just naturally started writing. I didn’t stop until I had a book manuscript. (I told you writing is a thought process.) That’s when I decided to give up for good.

Another fair question might be whether I’m just a rotten outliner, whether I am so completely disordered and disorganized that messiness is just my natural state of affairs. I don’t think so. I keep my apartment very neat and my things in order. My students think I am organized as a teacher. My lectures – even lectures that I give extemporaneously — are well-received. So it appears that I’ve got a pretty organized mind. I think the answer (and my outline- to- book attempt is some evidence of this) is that I give myself rather completely to the idea of writing as thinking. I’ve conditioned myself so that, once I start writing, I trust that the process itself more or less takes over. It does. And I let it. This is writing in the moment. This is the power of now.

I do want to be clear. The writing that emerges from this process always needs a lot of work. No matter how organized your mind, you are going to go down blind alleyways, be taken with nice-sounding phrases that turn up without substance, get sloppy or distracted. And, as you read your draft, you will begin to have ideas and see connections that escaped you as you first were committing your thoughts to paper. Writing is an iterative process. There is a lot of back and forth between first draft and final product. All I ask is that you leave enough room for creativity to flow. And that is my problem with outlines.

Lawrence Mitchell

Good Clean Writing: Get to the Point

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Today’s excerpt lays out some preliminary guidelines for good expository writing.  I will elaborate on these in future posts.

Use the words you mean and only the words you mean. Remember my advice to my students.   Your reader can only understand the words you put on the page. You are not going to be sitting there to explain ambiguities when your readers are reading your work. So you must try to read your work for what it says, not what you think it says, or intended it to say, or wish that it said. Also, avoid using unnecessary words. At best they are distractions. At worst they will confuse or mislead your reader. More on this in Chapter Six.

I and Thou. For some reason I have never figured out, writing teachers usually advise students to avoid personal pronouns. I don’t get it. I’ve never gotten it. “One should not use personal pronouns when one is writing lest one do . . . .” Do what? How stilted is that sentence? Nobody talks that way. Why would you write that way? Perhaps the underlying thought is that your personal involvement in the text detracts from the subject. But since you cannot help but reveal yourself in the writing, if you avoid personal pronouns you actually present yourself as rather a bizarre character. I will spend a lot more time on the power of pronouns in Chapter Seven, but my point here simply is that using personal pronouns humanizes you as a writer, presents you as a human being, and engages your reader in dialog with you. One should use them.

Assume your reader is ignorant. I don’t suggest this to be insulting. In fact Socrates, one of the greatest of philosophers, developed his entire approach by doing what he called “coming from ignorance,” asking questions of people to help him understand his and their ideas. (He was thoroughly obnoxious about it and I don’t recommend you emulate him that way, but you get the point.) So, too, should you assume your reader is ignorant of your subject. When you read your work before sending it to others, try to ask yourself all of the questions your reader might have. Then check your work to see if you have answered them. If you have not, then rewrite until you can think of no more unanswered questions.

Keep it simple.   Recall my colleague from Chapter Two on whose paper I “commented”? Recall that I said that he used lots of big words, jargon, and complex phrases to conceal his own lack of substance? Keep it simple. If you have something to say, you can say it clearly and comprehensibly. Nobody is going to think you are smart because you are hard to understand. At best, they will get annoyed and think less of you for it.

A corollary of keeping it simple is to avoid big or fancy words when more straightforward words will do. There are two reasons for this. First, nobody likes a showoff. Your reader will be annoyed if you use words that most people won’t understand.[1] Second, you risk misusing the word because you don’t understand it. Here’s an example that drives me nuts: Many people use the word “attorney” to describe a lawyer. I don’t know why, but I suspect that it’s because they think “attorney” sounds fancier than the humble “lawyer.” (These are the same people who – more accurately – refer to medical doctors as “physicians.” Pretentious, but harmless.) But guess what? “Attorney” and “lawyer” don’t mean the same thing. An attorney is somebody who represents people. She doesn’t have to be a lawyer, only an agent. A lawyer is somebody knowledgeable about the law. She doesn’t have to be an attorney. There are all sorts of lawyers who aren’t attorneys. Now, maybe this particular example won’t get you in trouble. Maybe you have a lot of attorney-loving friends. All I mean to suggest here is that you should be sure the word you choose means what you think it does. The simpler, the better.[2]

Less is more. You probably know somebody who talks a lot. I mean, a lot. Ask them how their day is, and they will tell you in detail every person they talked with, what they discussed, what they ate at each meal, where they stopped to shop on the way home from work and what they bought there, how polite or annoying the clerk was, etc., etc., and so forth. It makes you want to claw your eyes out. All you wanted to know was whether they had a good day. You would have asked more questions had you wanted more detail.

It’s no different with writing. Nobody wants to read your endless prose. True, some novelists can get away with writing lengthy tomes, usually because they are telling long and complex stories. But chances are you’re not William Faulkner or Thomas Pynchon. Chances are the writing you are doing is for a purpose – to convey information in a business or a personal context. So you want to convey the information in as economical and straightforward a manner as possible.

The phrase “less is more” was adopted by the great modern architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Above is a picture of the pavilion he designed for the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition. Compare it to the neo- Gothic cathedral next to it.  You can build the latter building, but you’d better be as good as Gaudi if you hope to avoid a mess.  Mies’ building perhaps is more attainable for most of us.  It is a model of simplicity. Its accessible and easy to take in at the same time that it simply is beautiful without being simplistic. Mies managed to strip away everything nonessential, leaving only the minimally necessary structure. But he constructed that structure with the very finest of materials, gorgeous white and green marble, chrome, and glass. This is your goal. The finest words, in the simplest structure. Your readers will thank you.

[1] I say this although it is sometimes the case that you need a word not frequently heard in order to make precisely the point you are attempting. I will take up the matter of word choice and when to get fancy in Chapter [   ].

[2] Another one that drives me crazy which I insert here, because I can, is the use of the word “alumni” to describe an individual. You don’t need to be a Latin scholar – there is enough Latin in the English language for you to know that a word that ends in “i” is plural. But I hear this mistake all the time. If you are an alumnus, you presumably are educated enough not to make this mistake. If you insist on being careless, please use the word “graduate.”

Lawrence Mitchell

Some Analysis of Good Writing

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I continue today posting short excerpts from my book-in-progress.  Today’s excerpt, though, will be somewhat longer, as will be necessary to analyze three passages of what I consider to be great writing.  Enjoy.

Some Examples. I will have plenty of opportunity later in this book to give you some examples and exercises that you can do to immediately improve your writing. But I’d like to stay on reading for a moment just to analyze a few passages that might help you think about what really makes for good writing. To show the consistency of what makes good writing (at least good non-fiction writing) I am going to present three very different types of writing: philosophy, autobiography, and journalism, separated by more than 200 years – 1759, 1907, and 1994. And I will take examples from the early part of each piece, where the establishment of ideas and tone is so important. I think you will see that, while each example has been written for a different reason, with different goals, and in different styles, they all share elements that distinguish them as good.

Each of these passages is clear, simple, and direct, although each conveys many layers of ideas and emotions. And each taps into the empathy of the reader in order to establish a bond that helps the reader to engage in the work. In the first case, empathy is the subject of the book, and this technique melds form and substance.

A Progress of Sentiments. The first, a work of philosophy, is the opening paragraph of Adam Smith’s great work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. While Smith is best known for his groundbreaking explanation of capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, The Theory of Moral Sentiments preceded that book by almost 20 years and established the moral foundation upon which Smith believed capitalism to be built. It is a misfortune of modern thought that people forget this when discussing the invisible hand and human selfishness. But I digress. This is a book about writing, not philosophy, so here is the opening paragraph:

No matter how selfish you think man is, it’s obvious that there are some principles in his nature that give him an interest in the welfare of others, and make their happiness necessary to him, even if he gets nothing from it but the pleasure of seeing it. That’s what is involved in pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we see it or are made to think about it in a vivid way. The sorrow of others often makes us sad—that’s an obvious matter of fact that doesn’t need to be argued for by giving examples. This sentiment, like all the other basic passions of human nature, is not confined to virtuous and humane people, though they may feel it more intensely than others do. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened criminal, has something of it.

Perhaps the first striking thing to notice about this paragraph is its modernity. It was written 255 years before I am writing this paragraph, but it reads as if it were written yesterday. The reason for this, for its timelessness, is its clarity and directness. It also avoids any sort of jargon. These characteristics are present in each of the three examples I give. [1]

Part of this –Smith’s directness – is something I am going to stress in Chapter 7. One might even describe him as beginning “in your face.” (‘No matter what you think, I am going to tell you otherwise.’) He makes it hard to ignore him. We are in the middle of a debate from the very beginning, one in which Smith clearly has participated before and one he assumes to be familiar to us.

From a technical perspective, Smith achieves this by using an interesting trope, one that he calls upon throughout the book. He addresses us as if we were in conversation with him. (I will encourage this style in my discussion of pronouns in Chapter [ ].) This invites us into the text, into Smith’s thoughts, right into the middle of the debate. He reinforces this author-reader familiarity with his immediate acknowledgment of an attitude he believes we share (i.e., that humans are selfish), and then by employing our own emotions to his ends. When he writes “the emotion we feel,” he is cleverly hijacking our emotions and calling upon our empathic reactions. At the same time, by uniting himself with us, he steps back from the challenge with which he began. But he does so argumentatively. We’re going to have to think through this with him.

Note, for example, how he twice asserts his observations to be “obvious.” Indeed, our sympathetic identification with sorrow is so obvious that it “doesn’t need to be argued for by giving examples.” This technique puts the contrary burden of proof on the reader; if the assertions are obvious, clearly we will need some pretty good evidence if we are to challenge them. At the same time, Smith slyly challenges us to come up with examples that counter the assertion. In this case, I believe that to be impossible as –obviously – does Smith.

This paragraph is also a very nice example of how the very technique and style of writing itself can reinforce the meaning of the text (a technique which I will show below used to different effect by David Foster Wallace). Smith’s engagement of our emotions from the get-go is essential to the (very long) argument that follows. This is because Smith’s moral theory relies directly – indeed depends — upon our ability sympathetically (empathetically) to identify with the emotions of others. It is precisely this identity, and its resonance, with its echoing of, our own emotions, that allows us to at least in some small part experience the joys and pains of others. It is that experience that ties our own selfish impulses – our desire for pleasure and avoidance of pain – to the feelings and thus well-being of others. Smith manages to convey all of this in a single opening paragraph. Brilliant writing.

From Generation to Generation. My next example is taken from Henry Adams’ autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams.[2]Adams, a Harvard history professor and author of one of the most widely-regarded histories of the United States from Jefferson through Madison, was the great-grandson and grandson of presidents, and the son of a key Civil War–era diplomat, facts which hung heavy over Adams and which give the Education its special poignancy. I first read the book my sophomore year of college, and was immediately enthralled. And this despite the fact that Adams can be whiny, contentious, arrogant, supercilious, nasty, and otherwise obnoxious. The book is so good that I still wound up liking the guy (and, indeed, devoted more than a quarter of my senior honors thesis to him).

Here’s the first paragraph. Note that, in autobiography (or, indeed, biography), this first paragraph is especially critical, because it is either where we first meet the subject or are introduced to his antecedents (the latter of which is used to brilliant effect by Robert Caro in the first volume of his monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Path to Power.)

Under the shadow of Boston State House, turning its back on the house of John Hancock, the little passage called Hancock Avenue runs, or ran, from Beacon Street, skirting the State House grounds, to Mount Vernon Street, on the summit of Beacon Hill; and there, in the third house below Mount Vernon Place, February 16, 1838, a child was born, and christened later by his uncle, the minister of the First Church after the tenets of Boston Unitarianism, as Henry Brooks Adams.

Now, what makes this special? It is every bit as modern as Smith. This, again, is a function of clarity, simplicity, and directness, despite the fact that the paragraph consists of only one sentence. And, just as Smith hijacks our emotions to his ends, so does Adams – albeit more subtly – hijack our memories.

On one level, this paragraph simply is a set of directions to a house, ending in a declarative clause about a simple fact. As directions, we would expect (though not demand) it to be a sentence of multiple clauses. But it is coy – brilliantly, cleverly, coy. Indeed it may be one of the most understated openings to any book written since Genesis. For just as Adams will tell a tale of frustration and failure (despite obvious objective success), the introduction embodies the entirety of the reason why. Of course it helps that we recognize Adams’ name, for even readers who don’t know his ancestry will call up in recollection the significance of Boston Adamses. I doubt the opening would have been effective had Henry’s famous ancestry been on his maternal line. Nonetheless, uniting Boston, John Hancock, the Adams family, Beacon Hill, and Boston Unitarianism (as well as the fact that his uncle was minister) speaks volumes about the legacy the baby was inheriting. The rest of the book unpacks this paragraph, just as Moral Sentiments does with its opening.

And that is the genius of this introduction. I haven’t much more to note about it, other than to stress its simplicity. Adams uses the technique of understatement throughout the book, evincing a modesty that belies rather a large ego. But Adams wants our sympathy. As enormously accomplished as he was, we are unlikely to rank him with his progenitors in national importance. In order for us to appreciate what young Henry did, he has to be understated. His ability to sustain that understatement throughout is a large part of what makes the writing so effective.

 State Fair. Finally, let’s take a look at a paragraph from a piece that, while nominally journalism, can best be categorized as literary non-fiction. The article (which is absolutely hilarious) appeared in Harper’s in 1994 and was written by David Foster Wallace. To my mind, there is no better writer than Wallace (and I list him as one of my three most influential writers at the end of this chapter). Why will become apparent if you read any of his work. This paragraph may suffice:

The heat is too familiar. In August it takes hours for the dawn fog to burn off. The air is like wet wool. Eight A.M. is too early to justify turning on the car’s AC. The sun is a blotch in a sky that isn’t so much cloudy as opaque. The corn starts just past the breakdown lanes and goes right to the sky’s hem. August corn in Illinois is as tall as a tall man. With all the advances in fertilization, it’s now knee-high by June 1. Locusts chirr in every field, a brassy electric sound that Dopplers oddly inside the speeding car. Corn, corn, soy- beans, corn, exit ramp, corn, and every few miles an outpost way off on a reach in the distance- house, tree with tire swing, barn, satellite dish. Grain silos are the only skyline. A fog hangs just over the fields. It is over eighty degrees and climbing with the sun. It’ll be over ninety degrees by 10:00 A.M. There’s that tightening quality to the air, like it’s drawing itself in and down for a siege. The interstate is dull and pale. Occasional other cars look ghostly, their drivers’ faces humidity- stunned.[3]

I think this simply is fantastic. You are there, and you see and feel precisely what Wallace is seeing and feeling. But there is more. You get his mood. Anxious. Edgy. Anticipating but not eagerly. How does he do it?

I’m going to analyze this paragraph with some precision.   In so doing, I am not suggesting that you need to do this with your own reading (or you’d never finish anything). I do not suggest that this is the way Wallace wrote it. (I don’t know, but I very much doubt that he did. I suspect that the precision of the structure is more a matter of instinct and training than architecture.) And I do not suggest that you have to do this with your writing. The reason I am analyzing the paragraph as closely as I am is to give you some insight into what makes great writing.   If you think about even a little of what you read and write this way, you are likely to become a far better writer.

Let me also acknowledge that, like the other examples I give, this is just one piece of great writing. I do not mean to suggest that Wallace’s form, technique, and style are the only ways to write well – only that they are very effective ways to write well. And I do want to get you thinking perhaps a bit more actively about why the good stuff you read is so good. That will help your writing.

Let’s start with mood, which is perhaps the most subtle of the paragraph’s qualities. Two of the principle devices that Wallace uses to establish mood here are syntax and rhythm. May I remind you that writing and speaking are the same activity? For many, if not most, of us, what we read resounds in our head. Try reading this paragraph aloud before proceeding to analysis. How does it feel? Yes, feel. Feeling is the consequence of the mood Wallace establishes. Do you feel the anxiety? Wallace, like Smith, knows precisely how to hijack your emotions.

OK, here goes. There are 17 sentences in this paragraph. Notice the sentence structure. Almost all of the sentences are short and direct. Each one describes precisely one thing. There is one exception – the 10th sentence, just past the middle of the paragraph. That sentence, almost three times the average length of each preceding sentence (and a little more than three times the average length of the sentences following), provides a panoramic vision, a more comprehensive sweep of what Wallace is seeing from the car. The remaining seven sentences – slightly shorter than the first nine, revert back to the single-image form.[4]

So Wallace creates edge and anxiety with short, punchy, precise sentences. We see one thing at a time – imagine sitting in the car with your eyes going from sight to sight. He takes a breath midway, allowing us to relax and put it all together, although he does so only after repeated, separated, monosyllables that highlight the monotony of the view (“corn, corn, soy-beans, corn . . .”). And then, as if remembering where he is and what he is about to do, he breathes a bit more quickly and anxiously to the end. Imagine if the paragraph were music, say a classical sonata. The first nine sentences comprise the first movement, the tenth sentence the second, slow movement, and the remaining sentences the fast and furious conclusion. The comparison to music is not idle. We have a culturally-developed aesthetic sense that crosses art forms.

Look again at the directness of the description. Wallace relies heavily on simile and metaphor. Of the 199 words only 12 – just 6% — are adjectives (about which I will rail in Chapter 7). This directness helps the pace. It makes the images clear. It prevents the reader from bogging down in the description but rather presents it as clear and as still as a Grant Wood painting. (image). And it leaves you waiting for more, anxious to know what happens next.

This, my friends, is good writing. Read well, write well.

[1] Please remember this when you reach my discussion of weasly indirection in Chapter 7.

[2] Henry Adams, The Education (New York; Library of America; 1987).

[3] David Foster Wallace, Ticket to the Fair, Harper’s, July 1994, p. 35, republished as Getting Away From Already Being Pretty Much Away From It All, in David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Boston; Little, Brown 1997).

[4] The average sentence in the paragraph is 11.7 words. The first nine sentences average 11.66, and the last seven sentences average 9.14.

Lawrence Mitchell

Good Reading is Good Writing — Ideas!

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In my last post, I said that reading good writing helps you to become a better writer. There is another important reason to read as much good writing as you can. It helps you to have something to say. I once had a senior colleague – a man whom I liked – who taught the normal law professor’s cushy load of about five hours a week, and who managed to eke out a scholarly paper about once every decade or so. One day he was sitting in my office, an activity on which he spent an inordinate amount of time, causing me to stretch my work days from the pre-dawn hours ‘til after dusk simply so I’d have time to write when he wasn’t around. (Did I mention I was untenured? I hadn’t the nerve just to throw him out.) I, with all of the subtlety I could muster, said something about writing and how important it was to keep a professor’s mind fresh.   Rather unselfconsciously, he responded: “I write when I have something to say.”

Well, ok. I suppose it’s not a good idea to write just for the sake of it. That would be kind of like talking just to hear yourself talk, and we know how boorish that can be. So I’m not encouraging you to be a literary boor. But most of us who want to write (and you are one of us or you wouldn’t be reading this book) enjoy writing because we like the process, we are engaged with words, and somewhere in our heart of hearts we believe we have something to say.

The problem is that something to say doesn’t exist in isolation. It doesn’t hit you in the head in the middle of the night. And if it does – ok, it sometimes does – write it down, but be very suspicious of it. If it survives the cold light of dawn, it might turn into something. But even if it does, chances are almost certain that this thought didn’t come out of the ether. It came from someplace else.

There are only two places from which thoughts can come. Reading and experience. Either can be an adequate source to get you writing. But, like me, you probably didn’t drive an ambulance during the Spanish Civil War, or climb Himalayan peaks, or spy for the British during the Cold War. You might have had informative and inspiring experiences. But it’s also likely that you’ve read a lot. And that is probably your most fertile source of ideas.

Philosophy provides a pretty good example. Western philosophers sometimes admit that pretty much all of western philosophy is a continuation of the debate between Plato and Aristotle. And Aristotle was reacting to Plato, who was reacting to his own teachers. You’re not very likely to succeed as a philosopher unless you’ve managed to read a fair amount in the discipline, no matter what inspiring ideas might hit you in the middle of the night. You won’t know what’s been said before, what the context of your ideas are, why they might matter, what the problems are with them. And you probably won’t have an idea in the first place, at least if you haven’t read anything that might stimulate your thinking.

So it is with pretty much everything else. You don’t know anything until you’ve read a bit, and until you know something it’s not likely you’re going to have much in the way of ideas. I know for myself that some of the times I’ve been most blocked are times when I haven’t been as inquisitive a reader as I might have been. And I know that one of the quickest ways to get unblocked is to start reading.

Lawrence Mitchell

 

 

Writing Part 2: Good Reading is Good Writing

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How You Learn Your Craft. How do you learn to speak? You listen.   And you imitate. How do you learn to play the violin? Or hit a tennis ball? Or sing? Or walk? You watch, you listen, you imitate those who know how to do what you want to learn to do. Writing is no different. What is the fastest way to becoming a good writer? Becoming a good reader. Read good writing.

That’s easy enough to say. But how do you know what writing is good?  You can tell whether the tennis ball stays in bounds and confounds the other player. You can hear whether the violin or voice is in tune. How do you identify good writing?

The simplest answer is that good writing is writing that communicates something that it clearly intends to communicate, no more and no less. The great novelist, Theodore Dreiser, in his novel Sister Carrie, characterizes the imploring of Carrie’s suitor thus: “How true it is that words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean.” Well, that may be fine for fiction, or for attempts to hook up with somebody, but it’s not so good for communication, the goal of which is precisely to convey the volumes we mean. And it should do so without volumes, or at least any more volumes than are strictly necessary – clear, direct, and to the point.

Good writing should allow the reader to answer the following questions rather simply: Why is the writer writing? What is the writer is trying to say? Does the writer actually say what she is trying to say? These straightforward questions can help you separate good writing from bad writing.

The Medium is the Message. Here’s an example from my own career. When I was a young professor, a colleague asked me to read his draft paper and “comment” on it. (This is a good example of the misuse of language. To “comment” on a paper is, in academic circles, to critique it. I suppose the usage came about because people thought “comment” sounded less aggressive than “critique.” It doesn’t literally mean the same thing. But I digress.)

I understood what he meant. And I was a little scared. I didn’t really know this guy, but I did know he was likely to vote on my tenure in the future. And because I didn’t know him, I didn’t know quite how critical he wanted me to be. (My experience in the academic world is that there are people who want real criticism so they can improve their work and people who just want you to tell them how good they are. This fellow turned out to be of the latter stripe.)

But it didn’t matter in this case. Because I read the paper. — and I had no idea what my colleague was talking about. Yes, the paper was written in the English language, or at least it used English words. And its subject – constitutional law – was one that I had studied in law school, so the concepts should have been reasonably familiar. But I really didn’t know what he was talking about, so I told him I found a few typographical errors but otherwise thought the paper was good. He seemed satisfied. (And by tenure time I had moved to a different school.)

I’m not proud of my cowardice. But this colleague then proceeded to talk to me about his theories. (Well, really to lecture me. That is a common form of academic “conversation.” I didn’t have to say a word.) And I learned something from his lecture. Unlike the paper, which was full of circumlocution, big words, long sentences, jargon drawn without context or definition from Continental social theory, and other literary affronts, my colleague was pretty straightforward in conversation. What I learned was why I hadn’t understood the paper, and that was for one simple reason: My colleague had nothing to say! Once I heard his points from his own mouth, when I could sit and ask him questions, I realized that these points were trivial. The paper said nothing worth saying. Yet he had managed to write at least 80 pages of text and persuade a decent law journal to publish it.

This was not good writing, and I knew it. My initial reaction – understandable for an insecure novice — was that I simply wasn’t smart enough to understand the work. But the real lesson was that I had understood it all too well. So, to return to a theme – writing is communication.  If my colleague had actually communicated in writing what he had orally told me, it is unlikely anybody would have published the paper. By burying his lack of substance in language, he created the aura of having said something worth saying. Needless to say, what he lost was my respect.

Here’s my point: If you have a decent vocabulary and a decent education, you should be able to understand pretty much everything you read. If not, it is not your fault. It’s not good writing.

Lists of “bests” are idiosyncratic.  So I’m not going to list “best” writings.  What I will list are the three books that have most profoundly influenced my thinking and my writing.  I advise you all to read them no matter what.  And I’m at least pretty sure that, if you do, you will experience what great writing truly can be:

Adam Smith, A Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1975).

David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997).

Lawrence Mitchell

Speak Sloppy, Write Sloppy

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Sloppy speaking means sloppy communication.[1]

Here’s an example, drawing on a misuse that makes me cringe, one that I all-too-often hear in conversation, yet rarely see in writing: “His behavior is concerning.” What does the speaker mean? I know that often in the spoken context (because I’ve asked), the speaker means that she was worried about the subject’s behavior. But that is not what the sentence says. In fact the sentence is incomplete. There is no object. (The proper way to say this, of course, is “his behavior concerns me.”[2] I would argue that, while technically correct, even this is just bad usage, because it allows for two meanings – the speaker is worried about the subject’s behavior, or the speaker is involved with the subject’s behavior. Double entendre is fine for puns and sex comedies, not for real communication.)

This isn’t just being picky. I, the listener, can only understand the words that are used, not some other intention in the speaker’s brain. We communicate with words because we are not telepathic. And so I will have to ask a question to understand precisely what it is that the speaker is trying to say: “What is his behavior concerning?” The speaker, failing to recognize her error, might well answer, “Me.” I, following the obvious meaning of this answer might ask, “What?” (You can see that the only place this will get us is the equivalent of the famous Abbott & Costello  “Who’s on first” dialog.) Or, recognizing her error, she might correct herself: “ I am concerned [worried] about his behavior.” Either way, my need to ask a question and the extra step required for her to answer it means that she has failed at communication. [3]

Now, here’s the problem for your writing. The more you engage in sloppy speech, the more you use the wrong words, bad grammar, or muddle your thoughts, the more adversely this will affect your writing. You will get into the habit of hearing as right what you say as wrong. It is true that in conversation you have the opportunity to correct your listener’s misunderstanding, assuming – unlike the case of Abbott and Costello — that the misunderstanding is revealed. But with the written word – with a reader removed from you in time and space – there is no chance at correction.

[1] It also means poor self-presentation, but I save the topic of speech for another book.

[2] Even this is a secondary meaning. The Latin source of the word means “to be relevant to.” Concern as worry already is a bastardization. A good speaker – and writer – would simply use the word “worry.”

[3] While I’m ranting in the footnotes, I should point out that in its last issue, a prestigious literary and news magazine of which I am a regular reader (and which employed perhaps the two most famous literary style writers in the 20th century) permitted authors to misuse the word “tiresome” (for tiring instead of boring).   Worse, in its current issue it permitted a writer to get away with the phrase “done eating.”   (Ouch.) Also within the last week or so, the major newspaper of record in my hometown permitted a travel writer to misuse the phrase “my husband and me.” I am almost certain that these mistakes creep in as a result of sloppy speaking, with the first sounding “fancier” than the correct word. We can debate at length whether these mistakes show a process of linguistic evolution. They might. But, at this moment, they’re just mistakes.

Lawrence Mitchell