Saturday, January 9, 2010
Image by tomswift46 via FlickrWhat a great, humane act of kindness here, by William Zinnser, whose books on writing should be required reading for anyone who goes anywhere near the task of teaching kids anything:
I have four principles of writing good English. They are Clarity, Simplicity, Brevity, and Humanity.
First, Clarity. If it’s not clear you might as well not write it. You might as well stay in bed.
Two: Simplicity. Simple is good. Most students from other countries don’t know that. When I read them a sentence that I admire, a simple sentence with short words, they think I’m joking. “Oh, Mr. Zinsser, you’re so funny,” a bright young woman from Nigeria told me. “If I wrote sentences like that, people would think I’m stupid.” Stupid like Thoreau, I want to say. Or stupid like E. B. White. Or like the King James Bible. Listen to this passage from the book of 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 favor to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all. [Look at all those wonderful plain nouns: race, battle, bread, riches, favor, time, chance.]
Or stupid like Abraham Lincoln, whom I consider our greatest American writer. Here’s Lincoln addressing the nation in his Second Inaugural Address as president, in 1865, at the end of the long, terrible, exhausting Civil War:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right [eleven straight one-syllable words], let us strive on [active verb] to finish the work we are in, to bind up [active verb] the nation’s wounds, to care [active verb] for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan [specific nouns],—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Here’s another American President, Barack Obama, also a wonderful writer, who modeled his own style on Lincoln’s. In his memoir, Dreams from My Father. a beautifully written book, Obama recalls how, as a boy,
At night, lying in bed, I would let the slogans drift away, to be replaced with a series of images, romantic images, of a past I had never known.
They were of the civil rights movement, mostly, the grainy black-and-white footage that appears every February during Black History Month. . . . A pair of college students . . . placing their orders at a lunch counter teetering on the edge of riot. . . . A county jail bursting with children, their hands clasped together, singing freedom songs.
Such images became a form of prayer for me [beautiful phrase], bolstering my spirits, channeling my emotions in a way that words never could. They told me [active verb] . . . that I wasn’t alone in my particular struggles, and that communities . . . had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens [specific detail]. They expanded or contracted [active verbs] with the dreams of men. . . . In the sit-ins, the marches, the jailhouse songs [specific detail], I saw [active verb] the African-American community becoming more than just the place where you’d been born or the house where you’d been raised [simple nouns: place, house]. . . . Because this community I imagined was still in the making, built on the promise that the larger American community, black, white, and brown, could somehow redefine itself—I believed [active verb] that it might, over time, admit the uniqueness of my own life.
So remember: Simple is good. Writing is not something you have to embroider with fancy stitches to make yourself look smart.
Principle number 3. Brevity. Short is always better than long. Short sentences are better than long sentences. Short words are better than long words. Don’t say currently if you can say now. Don’t say assistance if you can say help. Don’t say numerous if you can say many. Don’t say facilitate if you can say ease. Don’t call someone an individual [five syllables!]; that’s a person, or a man or a woman. Don’t implement or prioritize. Don’t say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. Writing is talking to someone else on paper or on a screen.
Which brings me to my fourth principle: Humanity. Be yourself. Never try in your writing to be someone you’re not. Your product, finally, is you. Don’t lose that person by putting on airs, trying to sound superior. . . .