Writing Well Part 1: Sensibilities

You should care about good writing. My English teachers cared about good writing, and they did a good job imparting their writing sensibilities to me, but they never taught me why I should care about it. I figured it was like ballet dancing; dancers strive to be the best they can at their craft for its own sake, as well as to impress the judges—that small group who can actually detect the nuances between two different performances.

That’s all wrong. Writing isn’t for English teachers or judges of essay contests—it’s for everyone. It is our most pervasive tool for communicating ideas. You should care about writing not for its own sake, but because you care about ideas. You care about clear thinking and the clear and honest expression of that thinking. Incidentally, you’ll be lied to your whole life by marketers, politicians, and business people who deliberately avoid clear language, but that’s the subject of my second essay. For now, let’s focus on the simple mechanics of writing plainly and clearly.


I’ll start by trying to pass on some of my sensibilities to you by examining this letter from a school principal, an example from Zinsser’s book, On Writing Well:

Dear Parent:

We have established a special phone communication system to provide additional opportunities for parent input. During this year, we will give added emphasis to the goal of communication and utilize a variety of means to accomplish this goal. Your inputs, from the unique position as a parent, will help us to plan and implement an educational plan that meets the needs of your child. An open dialogue, feedback, and sharing of information between parents and teachers will enable us to work with your child in the most effective manner.

Dr. George B. Jones

What an impersonal, pompous, impenetrable way of saying that Dr. Jones would be delighted if you phoned the school to discuss why little Jimmy did so poorly on his English assignment last week (maybe because he read more letters written by Dr. Jones?). The above letter uses far too many words to convey a simple idea. The reader gets lost and confused and the writer doesn’t seem to know what he’s saying in the first place.

Once again, with my notes in red:

Dear Parent:

We have established (already sounds wooden) a special (is it really special?) phone communication system (glomming three nouns together is a sure sign of vagueness) to provide additional opportunities (“to allow” is shorter) for parent input. During this year, we will give added emphasis (emphasize it if you must, but don’t “give added emphasis”) to the goal of communication and utilize (avoid “utilize” whenever possible) a variety of means (name these “means”) to accomplish this goal (this sentence ended up saying nothing at all). Your inputs (into a computer? the plural form as meant here is "input"), from the unique position as a parent (don’t patronize me), will help us to plan and implement an educational plan (you’re going to plan a plan, ay?) that meets the needs of your child (I’m dying here, speak like a normal person, please). An open dialogue, feedback, and sharing of information between parents and teachers (you said the same thing three times) will enable (buzzword) us to work with your child in the most effective manner (wordy, verbose, and too many words).

Dr. George B. Jones

For contrast, here is one of my favorite paragraphs ever, from Strunk & White’s Elements of Style:

Omit needless words
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Omit needless words! Vigorous writing is concise! Words to live by. If you intend to write anything, you should own a copy of the Elements of Style and refer to it every so often. It reminds you to say “Charles’s friend” instead of “Charles’ friend” (on page 1, even). It reminds you when to use “which” as opposed to “that.” Most importantly though, it reminds you to write concisely, precisely, and clearly.


All through the Elements of Style, one finds evidences of the author’s deep sympathy for the reader. Will felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get the reader up on dry ground, or at least to throw a rope.


In Why I Write, The excellent writer George Orwell had plenty to say about omitting needless words:

These [bloated phrases] save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are render inoperative, mitigate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render.


Another pervasive writing problem is wandering around a point instead of directly saying it. Don’t say, “Generally speaking, it’s usually a good idea to clean your fireplace once per year.” Instead say, “Clean your fireplace once per year.” Don’t say, “It seems to be the case that our product may have performed more poorly than our competitor’s product under the test conditions.” Say, “Our competitor’s product out-performed ours in tests.” Get to the point, don’t waffle, and mean what you say.

When you know what you want to say and say it, you create vigorous sentences with no fat on them. You strike cleanly like a Samurai beheading his enemy in a single stroke. When you don’t know what you want to say or when you are afraid to really say it, you create serpentine, boring sentences. Don’t pull punches with your writing; say what you have to say honestly.

When you’re looking for words to omit, omit adverbs and adjectives first. “He slammed the door, quickly” is redundant. “She smiled at him invitingly” is ham-fisted. “He stupidly studied material that won’t even be on the test” is one word too many—let the reader draw his own conclusions about the man’s stupidity.

Adjectives aren’t guilty as often as adverbs, but they are close behind. The reader doesn’t learn anything useful about the beautiful sunset, the brown pine-cone, or the cute bunny rabbit. These adjectives are just taking up space, not serving any useful purpose. If it was a radioactive pine-cone or a blue bunny rabbit, those adjectives would pull their weight.


Let nouns and verbs do most of your work and use adverbs and adjectives sparingly. Also make sure to use the active voice rather than the passive voice. “The house was painted by Joe” is awkward and wordy compared to “Joe painted the house.” In the second case, Joe took an action: he painted the house. In the first case, the house was acted on by a force named Joe. “It was believed by the children that Santa came through the chimney” is a maddening way of saying, “The children believed Santa came through the chimney.” With the active voice, a noun takes action. In the passive voice, something is acted upon by some other thing in a vague, boring-sounding way with too many words.

Here is more of George Orwell’s contempt for pretentious language:

In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the ize and de formations, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved by anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth.


[Dear George Orwell: you wrote a criticism of the passive voice in the passive voice.—Sirlin]

I think of Orwell’s comments every time I’m at the airport and hear that grating recorded voice caution me against accepting any items or luggage from individuals I don’t know. Individuals is not a formal way of saying people; it’s a sad attempt to sound like the voice of authority. “We the people of the United States,” was a sufficient start for the US Constitution, rather than “We the individuals.” Writer Mike Judge pokes fun at this same word in the movie Idiocracy where the words people, suspect, and prisoner are all replaced with the more pretentious particular individual.


“Okay, sir, this is to figure out what your aptitude’s good at and get you a jail job while you’re being a particular individual in jail.”
–A cop in the movie Idiocracy


Orwell had further contempt for the kind of maddening writing that writes itself without any need for human thought. This auto-pilot prose is especially common when people are trying to sound important or formal. It ends up sounding like they are either full of themselves or trying to hide something in the sea of unnecessary words.


Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don't have to hunt about for the words; you also don't have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious.
When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in the fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.


At the risk of over-quoting (too late), I feel impelled to include this gem of Orwell’s:

By this morning’s post I have received a pamphlet dealing with conditions in Germany. The author tells me that he ‘felt impelled’ to write it. I open it at random, and here is almost the first sentence I see: ‘[The Allies] have an opportunity not only of achieving a radical transformation of Germany’s social and political structure in such a way as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in Germany itself, but at the same time of laying the foundations of a co-operative and unified Europe.’ You see, he ‘feels impelled’ to write — feels, presumably, that he has something new to say — and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.


Remember that all this talk about writing clearly and vigorously isn’t so English teachers will be impressed. It’s because you want to express your ideas clearly. If you can’t express your ideas clearly, you might not have clear ideas in the first place. Vague writing leads to vague thinking and usually comes from vague thinking. It is better to be clear and wrong than to cloak your ideas with impenetrable or overly-fancy language.

The first step in improving your writing is to internalize the sensibilities I’ve been talking about. Ask yourself what Strunk and White would say about your fluffy sentences. Ask what Orwell would think of your hackneyed phrases. Ask what Sirlin would think when you pull your punches because you’re afraid someone might be offended, rather than honestly saying what you need to say.

[Dear Sirlin: You overuse the phrase pull your punches. Think of something original
–George Orwell]

I’ll leave you with this short list of guidelines from Orwell. You could certainly do worse than these:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.