Sunday, June 30, 2019

Cutting Through The Jargon Jungle

Cutting Through The Jargon Jungle

Gary Gilson

Some sentences, read aloud, are jawbreakers. Others are mindbenders. Consider this combination jawbreaker/mindbender:

“The board gave a third reading to a Foothills Boulevard Landfill gas emission reduction credits transfer contract authorization law.”

Please . . . please read that aloud. Starting with “Foothills,” we have to slog through 11 nouns in a row. And at the end, we have no idea where we are.

Get out your machete.

Wait, there’s an easier path to clarity.

That jawbreaker/mindbender, from the Prince George Citizen newspaper in British Columbia, was reprinted in The New Yorker magazine, which loves to mock poorly worded communications.  

How did all those nouns get stacked up? No one in the history of humankind has ever spoken such a sentence.

But the writer, immersed in issues facing the zoning board, compressed them all into a seemingly efficient bundle that anyone on the board — similarly at home in a jargon jungle — would instantly understand. 

But not the public. The beleaguered public.

So, how to fix the problem? Just start at the end of the sentence and work toward the front, to wit: “The board gave a third reading to a bylaw authorizing a contract that would transfer credits for the reduction of gas emissions at the Foothills Boulevard Landfill.”

A perfect example of the value of reading aloud what you have written, to test whether it sounds like a human utterance.
Not all “writing” succeeds in communicating.

The late writer Wendell Johnson, an Iowa University professor, stated a great truth: “You can’t write writing.”

Too many students in composition classes recoiled from the training they were getting in school, and they wound up afraid to write anything. But their jobs now require them to write, so they try to survive by writing what they think is “writing.”

Instead of writing the way people talk.

When I work with college students who strive to write clearly I offer this advice: “When you say to your roommate, ‘You’ll never guess what happened to me today,’ and she says, ‘Tell me,’ you have no trouble telling her. So . . . write it that way.”

If only some academic bureaucrats could have done that they would have spared us this next horror, a treatise on how to improve teaching. I encourage extreme patience as you slog:

​“Operationally, teaching effectiveness is measured by assessing the levels of agreement between the perceptions of instructors and students on the rated ability of specific instructional behavior attributes which were employed during course instruction.
“Due to the fact that instructors come from diverse backgrounds and occupy different positions within a given university, both individual and organizational based factors may contribute to the variance in levels of agreement between perceptions.”

It’s enough to drive you back to that Foothills Boulevard Landfill.
If you want to write clearly, keep it simple.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson said it best: 
"I just stop trying to sound important. I just say it. The simpler you say it, the more eloquent it is.”

[June 30, 2019]

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Why Clear Writing Is Essential

Why Clear Writing Is Essential

By Gary Gilson

Graduation season always reminds me of a conversation a professor friend of mine had with a student about to receive his diploma and look for his first job.

The professor said, “You’re a bright guy, Jim, but you really need to improve your writing. And quickly.”

“I don’t need to worry about writing,” Jim said. “I’m going into public relations.”

“And what do you think you will be doing in public relations?” 
Jim had a quick answer: “I’ll be relating . . . to the public.”
“No, you won’t. You’ll be grinding out press releases, and if you don’t write them well you’ll be out on your behind before you know it.”

A bank executive told me he spends so much time correcting writing errors by his staff that it keeps him from doing crucial things his job requires.
Some of the best advice I ever heard on writing well came from Marcus Quintilianus, a Roman who lived from 35 A.D. to 100 A.D.:
“We should write, not so that it is possible to understand us, but so that it is impossible to misunderstand us.”
A lofty standard, and an indispensable one. 

That’s what clear communication is all about. Precision and simplicity lead to clarity. If we do not write clearly, our reader may misunderstand us and take action that undermines our enterprise.
A college teacher of mine advised me to read everything by a writer whose work I loved, to get inside that writer’s head. I chose Joseph Conrad, one of the greatest writers in the English language, even though Polish was his native tongue. Besides that, Conrad, for many years a merchant seaman, gave up shipboard life and became a writer only in his late thirties.
Of all the great advice that superb writers have offered, Conrad’s credo, to me, stands tallest:
“My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything.”
Almost 2000 years passed between Quintilianus and Conrad, and if you hew to fundamental standards of simplicity and clarity, nothing has changed.
Being a brilliant thinker – William F. Buckley, Jr., for example – is no guarantee of producing simple, clear writing. Buckley populated his essays with words like these – eleemosynary, epicene, periphrastic – that readers had to look up. That interrupted the flow for them, and many would abandon his essay and miss out on his provocative thinking.
About Ernest Hemingway’s writing, William Faulkner said this: 
“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”
In a previous column I cited what I consider the worst sentence ever: 

“Refreshments were served, and a good time was had by all.”
Here’s my choice for the best: the last line below, in the song “Say It Simple”:
“Say it simple, so I can understand, use all the easy words at your command. Don’t tell lies, I never cared for fiction, talk real clear, don’t want no friction with your diction.”

Ain’t language fun?

[June 16, 2019]

Sunday, June 2, 2019

End Your Sentences With Impact

End Your Sentences With Impact


By Gary Gilson

To create memorable impact for your readers, end your sentences with impact.

The great crime novelist Raymond Chandler challenged the notion of critics that he wrote mysteries; he confessed that he was “not much on plot”; instead, he said, he focused on character, scene, and dialogue. 

A master stylist, Chandler insisted on the importance of ending a sentence with impact.

He complained to a friend about the change an editor had made in one sentence. 

Chandler’s sentence ended, “  . . . and not too critically examine the artistic result.”

The editor changed it to, “ . . . and not examine the artistic result too critically.”

Chandler objected to the editor’s assumption that he “knows more (than the author) about phrase and cadence and the placing of words, and that he actually thinks that a clause with a strong (stressed) syllable at the end, which was put there because it was strong, is improved by changing the order so that the clause ends in a weak adverbial termination.”

In other words, a weak and clumsy ending to a sentence resembles the clunk-clunk-clunk of a freight train’s derailed caboose. 

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, that paragon of clear, cogent writing, an article about a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, designed to protect voting rights from Republican efforts to suppress likely Democratic votes, contained this sentence:

“The bill is a broad, imaginative, and ambitious set of responses to the most pressing challenges facing American democracy, many of which preceded the 2016 election, but almost all of which were brought into sharper focus by it.”

That sentence sins twice: first, in using the passive-voice verb “were brought,” and second, in using the clunky ending “by it.”

You can rework that sentence to produce a crisp result in any number of ways; consider this one:

The bill is a broad, imaginative, and ambitious set of responses to the most pressing challenges facing American democracy, many of which preceded the 2016 election, but almost all of which the bill brought into sharper focus.

Now “the bill” (in the last clause) becomes an active agent, eliminating the passive “were brought”, and “by it” vanishes and opens the door for the powerful ending “sharper focus.” Even the sound of “sharper focus” has the impact of finality. 

The producers of the laundry detergent Tide knew what they were doing when they named a new version of their product Tide XK. Was XK the real name of some secret chemical ingredient? No, there’s no such thing as XK. But it sure sounds cracked up to crush the dirt out of dirty duds.

The company certainly didn’t name the new version Tide LN. 

How about LN for a fabric softener?

Strengthen your writing by reading your first draft aloud, to get the sound and feel of your words and the structure of your sentences.

Ending sentences with impact helps make what you write say what you mean.

[June 2, 2019]