Sunday, January 10, 2010

a cheat sheet for good writing

William Zinsser, author of the million-seller "On Writing Well", lays out the fundamentals of writing good English in this piece in The American Scholar. The article was based on a speech he gave in August at the Columbia J-school to the incoming international students.

He starts off his rules for good writing by making a distinction between "good nouns" and "bad nouns", the latter being derivatives of the odious Latin:
The words derived from Latin are the enemy—they will strangle and suffocate everything you write. The Anglo-Saxon words will set you free.

How do those Latin words do their strangling and suffocating? In general they are long, pompous nouns that end in -ion—like implementation and maximization and communication (five syllables long!)—or that end in -ent—like development and fulfillment. Those nouns express a vague concept or an abstract idea, not a specific action that we can picture—somebody doing something. Here’s a typical sentence: “Prior to the implementation of the financial enhancement.” That means “Before we fixed our money problems.”

The good nouns, he writes, are those good old Anglo-Saxon words that are strong and concrete and that refer to the stuff of everyday life. Later, he references Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, Didion and Obama, among others, to show that the best and most evocative writing is clear, concrete and active. Here's an eg:

One of my favorite writers is Henry David Thoreau, who wrote one of the great American books, Walden, in 1854, about the two years he spent living—and thinking—in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau’s writing moves with simple strength because he uses one active verb after another to push his meaning along. At every point in his sentences you know what you need to know. Here’s a famous sentence from Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of nature, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Look at all those wonderful short, active verbs: went, wished, front, see, learn, die, discover. We understand exactly what Thoreau is saying. We also know a lot about him—about his curiosity and his vitality. How alive Thoreau is in that sentence! It’s an autobiography in 44 words—39 of which are words of one syllable. Think about that: only five words in that long, elegant sentence have more than one syllable. Short is always better than long.

Exactly. bk

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