New Year's resolutions. Humbug!
How about a New Year's revolution? We pledge to overthrow all bad-writing habits, and to keep our writing simple, precise, concise — and therefore clear. Why revolution? Because resolutions are routinely abandoned.
When I meet a new class in my journalism course at Colorado College, here's the first thing I say to them: "In this course you are not permitted to use the word dichotomy or the term paradigm shift."
Right away I can see some of them shifting — squirming! — in their seats.
"That doesn't mean there's no place in our language for those two things, but in your work here, keep your writing simple; write the way most people talk."
It works. Never in my 22 years at the college has a student violated that rule. Because they keep that rule in mind, their writing keeps getting clearer.
At the end of the course I say this: "I invite you to write me a note about your experience in this course. That will help me shape future courses. Feel free and safe to write whatever you want; I have already turned your grades in to the registrar's office, so nothing you write can either help or harm your grade."
This note from one student produced one of the greatest payoffs a teacher can get. He wrote: "On the first day we met you said, 'No dichotomy; no paradigm shift.' I went back to all the papers I had written in my previous courses, and those two things appear in almost every paper. I now recognize it as a cheap trick to try to impress a professor."
What's truly impressive? Clear writing that flows seamlessly.
No hiccups, no glitches, no questions raised but not answered.
Now we're talking about niceties of language.
Even very good writing can be improved. Consider the recent New York Times obituary of the Yankees pitcher Don Larsen, whose perfect game in 1956 was the only one in World Series history.
The story was written by the Times specialist in sports obituaries, Richard Goldstein, a graceful writer but one who, like all the rest of us, does not pitch perfect games. To wit, this from his Larsen obit:
"In the Dodgers' second inning, Jackie Robinson led off with a hard shot that bounced off third baseman Andy Carey, but shortstop Gil McDougald grabbed the ricochet and threw out Robinson, who was lacking the speed of his early years, on a close play."
The phrase "on a close play" drifts too far from the action it describes. It feels muddled up with "the speed of his early years."
Try this: "McDougald grabbed the ricochet and on a close play threw out Robinson, who was lacking the speed of his early years."
To me, that delivers clarity and impact, which can emerge from your reading aloud what you have written.
Up with niceties! Up with clarity!! Up with revolution!!!
Gary Gilson, a Twin Cities writing coach, has taught writing-intensive journalism courses for 22 years. Contact him at www.writebetterwithgary.com.