Sunday, May 19, 2019

Worst Sentence Ever Written

Worst Sentence Ever Written

By Gary Gilson

My nominee for the worst sentence ever written in the English

“Refreshments were served, and a good time was had by all.”

Doesn’t sound like a very good time to me. Sounds deadly. The verbs
– “were served” and “was had” -- suck the air out of human experience.
Those verbs exemplify the passive voice. A simple way to differentiate
the active from the passive voice: In the active, A causes B; in the passive,
B is caused by A.

I’ll bet many of you have read that awful sentence before, perhaps in
a report of a church picnic. Whoever wrote it probably thought it was “writing.”

What could a writer do to make that picnic sound like a really good
time? Report exactly what people did. For example:

“Mary Lundstrom served her latest punch concoction — a
combination of pineapple, mango, and papaya juice; seven-year-old
Jackie Nelson won the 50-yard sack race, leaving Pastor Youngquist
in the dust.” Etc.

The active voice delivers a punch; the passive voice goes limp.

Now that example really is a picnic, compared with this one:

In a documentary about Death Row at a South Carolina state prison,
a young, illiterate inmate, convicted of murdering three members of a
family, described his crime like this:

“Me and my buddy broke into this trailer to steal stuff. After a while
we heard tires on the gravel outside, and a guy came in. We grabbed him,
we tied up his wrists and ankles, we put duct tape over his mouth, we tossed
him in a corner, and then we went back to stealin’ stuff.”

Two more people came home and suffered the very same treatment.

“Then, after there wasn’t nothin’ left to steal, we dragged them three
into the next room, where they was shot.”

Does anything in that final passage leap out at you? Re-read it and
think about it.

Notice the verbs: Everything in the inmate’s description of the crime,
leading up to that last phrase — “where they was shot” — occurs in
the active voice. He and his buddy stole, they tied their victims up,
they taped their mouths, they tossed them into corners, they dragged
them into the next room . . . all actions they performed.

“Where they was shot” happens in the passive voice. This inmate,
who probably never learned grammar, suddenly shifted — from
letting us see what he and his buddy did, to hiding their role in the

The criminal separated himself from his actions; his victims were
vaguely acted upon. The passive voice helped the inmate — probably in
his unconscious mind — to shun responsibility.

But I’m no purist about banning the passive voice. There can be
legitimate exceptions. For example, if persons being acted upon are
more important, or better human beings, than those acting against
them, by all means use the passive voice. To wit:

“Thirty-four Freedom Riders were savagely beaten by bat-wielding
members of the Ku Klux Klan.”

[May 19, 2019]

Sunday, May 5, 2019

A Gift That Keeps Growing

A Gift That Keeps Growing

By Gary Gilson

One of the greatest gifts I ever got — The New Yorker Magazine — came from my great-uncle Ollie.

I was only 12, and The New Yorker hooked me. I have been reading it ever since. Here’s the unique thing: Uncle Ollie did not buy me a subscription; no, he would read his own copy, then wrap it up and mail it to me every week from his home in New York to my home in Connecticut.

That’s love.

Among my most vivid memories of his home: the walls leading to the attic were papered with covers of The New Yorker. 

Reading The New Yorker gave me a love for language, long before I came to appreciate the magazine’s rigorous fact-checking and lofty standards for clarity.

In coaching writers I offer this encouragement: “Make what you write . . . say what you mean.”

To achieve that goal requires precision — the basis for concise, clear and compelling writing. That’s technique; not worth much if what you’re writing about lacks substance.

One of my most painful memories: a series on juvenile delinquency that I wrote as a rookie reporter for The Minneapolis Star. Re-reading it now, I do not hesitate to describe it as unreadable and interminable. It’s filled with self-serving and mind-numbing bureaucratic jargon of state corrections officials; not a single juvenile delinquent appears in the series, and, as a result, nothing human that a reader can connect with.

With experience and practice I got better. All of us can; we just have to keep trying.

At colleges where I have taught journalism, among them Yale, Columbia, the University of Minnesota and, for the past 22 years, Colorado College, I always open with a presentation on clear writing. I urge students not to write “writing,” but to write the way they talk. After all, they have no trouble talking about the highlight of their day to a college roommate, so why not write the way you talk?

It’s a great way to start.

In this series of columns I will use anecdotes to illustrate principles of clear writing. Next time I’ll cover a key principle by telling a story from Death Row at the South Carolina State Prison. Stay tuned.

For now, here’s a tip sheet on how to improve your writing:

1. Think about what you want to write.
2. Gather data.
3. Think about who will read what you write.
4. Create an OUTLINE of priorities. It will prove invaluable and will 
    relieve stress.
5. Start writing. DO NOT EDIT as you write. Just pour it out.
6. Read aloud what you have written. If it doesn’t sound natural, 
    change it.
7. Now edit and rewrite.
8. Read aloud AGAIN. If possible, read it to another person, and 
    have another person read it to you. If necessary, REWRITE.

Meanwhile, I want you know what a thrill it is for me to be writing again for the newspaper where my career began.

[May 5, 2019]