For many years of my career, I was a creative director at an ad agency and one thing I would tell the writers on my team is we do not work for a deli. We are not paid by the pound or volume we write. In fact, many times when they would bring me copy for an ad, I would ask them to go back and take 30% of the words out of what they wrote and see if it hurt the communication. In almost every case, the communication was improved by using fewer words. I think authors of books would find the same exercise helpful. Even though books are not bound by the time and page restrictions of advertising, writing with brevity and clarity can actually make the writing more powerful.
The road to not writing badly starts with simplifying and clarifying.- Ben Yagoda
Apparently, I am not the only one who holds that point of view. This weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran a column written by Ben Yagoda, English professor at the University of Delaware. He is the author of “How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them,” to be published this week.
In the article, he uses an example from his classroom that illustrates the challenges many aspiring writers face today. Here’s excerpt.
My students can’t really handle writing “well.” At this point in their writing lives, that goal is too ambitious. I propose a more modest aim: not writing badly.
Take this sentence, adapted from a restaurant review by a student who was roughly in the middle of the pack in terms of ability: “Walking in the front door of the cafe, the vestiges of domesticity are everywhere regardless of a recent renovation.”
In just 19 words, it provides an impressive selection of current widespread writing woes: dangling modifier (“vestiges” didn’t walk in the front door), poor word choice (“vestiges,” “domesticity,” “regardless”), excessive prepositions (four in all) and an underappreciated but pervasive ill, a weak sentence-subject (“vestiges”).
The fact that someone would write such a sentence in an advanced college class is generally attributed to deficiencies in K-12 education. I don’t doubt that’s a valid criticism, but two other factors are equally important and a bit simpler to address
He goes on to offer some reasons why he thinks writing is a challenge today and one suggestion of what we can do about it. In his words,
Young people don’t read enough edited prose. Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the notion that, in order to become an outstanding practitioner in a discipline, you need to devote to it roughly 10,000 hours of practice. If you’ve done that much reading—not including text messages, emails and status updates—you will probably have absorbed a sufficient sense of punctuation, diction and style so as not to perpetrate a sentence such as the one above.
The second thing is that the author of that sentence tried to write “well.” Trying to create a complex sentence led to the dangling modifier. Trying to use fancy words led to misusing “vestiges,” “domesticity” and “regardless.”
This desire to “write well” is a big reason why so much writing fails to connect with and hold the writer. Again in his words:
The road to not writing badly starts with simplifying and clarifying. What was the author trying to express? The nub of it was that when you’re in the cafe, you notice a lot of homey stuff, and that this is surprising, or at least interesting enough to mention, because of the recent renovation. So the way to start is just by saying that as precisely as you can. Something like this: “The cafe was remodeled last year, but lots of homey touches are still evident.”
What about your writing? Once you have a draft, do you go back through and see if you can say what you want to say with fewer words or more precise words? It is how to not write bad.