Years ago, my son earned a low grade on a descriptive writing assignment. He had been asked to write a descriptive sentence and here is what he wrote:
The red car goes fast.
In the margin his teacher scrawled: More detail, please.
I had to laugh. And I did. Out loud. This is what is wrong with writing today, I thought.
What we learned in 7th grade (and maybe in college, too)
My son had mastered what most adults never do. Minimal words often convey far more than flowery, meandering sentences that end up passively reiterating the mundane details of copious information no one is remotely interested in perusing. In other words, he said exactly what he meant. And really, his sentence possessed the best of details. Red equals fast, especially when it comes to cars. What more needed to be said?
I find it ironic that most adults are such poor writers and that the very institutions meant to improve our writing probably helped wreck it. Who doesn’t remember padding words and paragraphs in order to satisfy a college professor’s call for a 15 page paper? I remember writing in circles, knowing that at least half of what I wrote was pure filler but necessary to earn the grade. It’s a bad habit many of us struggle to shake for the rest of our lives.
I am afraid lawyers, in particular, have perfected this art, saying everything twice and upside down with euphemisms and double negatives thrown in so that nobody really knows that maybe they aren’t even sure of what they wrote. But who is this helping? What is the point of writing if no one understands what you wrote?
What we need to remember
Because I am a writer, it surprises people when I tell them I don’t remember my grammar lessons. Sure I can put sentences together, but I can barely point out direct objects much less appositive phrases (what are appositive phrases, anyway?). I’m convinced that there are only a few simple writing rules. I ascribe to them and believe they could vastly improve nearly anyone’s written work.
1. Simplicity rules.
Like engineers, writers must be precise with the words we choose.
Be careful of over saying what needs to be said. If you must use “in other words” (as I did in the first paragraph under “What we learned in 7th grade”), check the sentence you are “other-wording.” Maybe you can be more concise the first time (I could have been).
2. Use active voice.
When my husband asks me what I did today, I won’t say, “A blog post was written by me today.” I’ll say “I wrote a blog post.” Seems simple enough but oh how passivity sneaks into writing. (See, I could have been passive and said, “writing can be so passive.”) Make your subjects work. Ask yourself, did this happen to something or did the something do something?
3. Find good verbs.
I don’t remember this lesson from middle school. I remember lessons like my son’s, drilling adjectives and adverbs and fronting every noun with them in an attempt to elicit effect. Notice in my last sentence I used the verbs “drilling” and “fronting.” When I first wrote the sentence, I used “learning” and “adding.” But “drilling” is a better word because it evokes an image of repetitive practice. Hopefully an image of a student, sitting at a desk, bent over a grammar worksheet (or something like it) popped into your head. And “fronting” places my verbs in your mind better than “adding,” which could be added anywhere, right? Our goal should be to use words that lead our readers to see what we see without drowning them in description. Verbs are an economical solution.
4. Don’t love your thesaurus too much.
In our attempt to find the right verb, we might be tempted to turn to our trusty thesaurus. I use mine. All the time. But we must use discretion in its applicability or we will be culpable of overindulgent employment of such missives. Did you follow? Let me try again. We must be choosy or we’ll sound like blowhards. If you don’t know what a word means, if you aren’t sure it is appropriate, it it doesn’t say exactly what you mean, don’t use it. If your vocabulary is limited, read. If you learn a new word, use it before the day is through (but use it appropriately). You will find your writing improves with your vocabulary.
So there you have it. My die-hard rules of writing. What would you add to this list?