Replying to Pat’s comment on one of yesterday’s posts, I was reminded of a list called “Writing Wrongs” which I used to hand out to my students at Harvard. Cute title, huh? There should have been a 47th rule, “Don’t be cute,” but let it stand. The other 46 are after the jump, for whatever use they may be to anyone.
1. IF YOU WOULDN’T SAY IT, DON’T WRITE IT.
Here’s a sentence picked at random (really) from a paper written by an A student: “The effectiveness of the antipsychotic drug Thorazine made it possible for many schizophrenics and other patients to be treated outside of hospitals and to live independent lives, providing an attractive alternative to the overcrowded and expensive mental health facilities.”
Perfectly grammatical and understandable — but heavy going. Would you say it to your roommate, or to anybody else? Then why inflict it on your readers?
Imagine you’re writing a play or a movie, and you want your dialogue to sound real. Maybe you’d have your character say something like, “Once they came up with this stuff Thorazine, you could calm patients down enough so you could turn them loose. A cheap way to take care of overcrowding.” A little too informal? Then fancy it up some:
“A drug called Thorazine calmed down psychotics so that many of them could get along outside of hospitals. This looked like a fine way to end overcrowding and save money.”
See? No great trick to it. But to do it, YOU HAVE TO SAY EACH SENTENCE ALOUD. Make actual noises with your mouth — speech — and listen to those noises with your ears. Even better, get someone else to read while you listen. The parts that are hard to say will be hard to read. Rewrite them until they aren’t hard to say anymore.
2. AVOID THE PASSIVE. AVOID THE PASSIVE. AVOID THE PASSIVE.
Rarely, the passive voice is useful and appropriate. Mostly, though, the passive distorts meaning or even destroys it. The passive ducks responsibility, which is why bureaucrats and politicians use it. It drains your writing of life; it can turn entire papers into tedious, boring sludge.
Example: “A crime has been committed against the homeless people of the United States by the administration’s own irresponsibility in not implementing programs which were cited as being needed by former President Lyndon B. Johnson.”
Who committed the crime? According to this sentence, the administration’s irresponsibility did. Can irresponsibility commit crimes? No. So who is the criminal? And who cited the programs as being needed? Johnson? Or were the programs needed by Johnson? Was he homeless?
3. BE CONCRETE.
Rather than generalities, use examples, quotes, anecdotes, parables, statistics, personal experience. Example: “If all children were exposed to many groups, problems like racism would be eliminated.”
Now suppose the writer had set down specifics instead of substituting a fine-sounding generality for thought. He might have written something like: “A court order ended Boston’s de facto school segregation in 1968. In the 20 years since, the racial mix in city classrooms has averaged 65% black to 35% white. As a result, racism has disappeared in Bostonians under the age of 26.”
By this point, the writer would have come to see that his original notion of how to cure racism had just had a fatal collision with reality. Maybe he would start to wonder if exposure to different races weren’t perhaps the cause of racism rather than the cure for it. Then he might set aside that notion and start to wonder something else. But at least he would have switched his mind off auto-pilot.
Generalities not only bore the reader; they let the writer hide the weakness of his argument from himself.
4. WORK FROM THE SPECIFIC TO THE GENERAL.
Generalities do have their place, however, and it is usually at the end. Begin with examples, facts and figures, expert testimony, historical precedent or parallels, and the like. Only then, once your evidence is before us, give us the lessons, principles, rules, or other generalities that grow out of that evidence. Some excellent writing reverses this order, but for the most part you should follow Aesop’s example: parable first, then moral.
5. LESS IS MORE.
This is the principle that guided a bad architect, Mies van der Rohe, as he built ugly buildings. It is a fine principle, though, for writers. Harold Ross, the founder of The New Yorker, would write “Boil” in the margin when his writers got wordy. He was saying the same thing as van der Rohe, but in two fewer words.
6. AVOID WORDS YOU’RE ALMOST SURE YOU KNOW.
This writer didn’t: “A plethora of comments to this effect have been made by the news media.” Can a “means of communication” (the definition of media) comment? “Plethora” means superabundance, or excess. The author, it was clear from the context, only meant “many comments.”
The lesson is to stick with words that you absolutely know you know. Don’t be afraid that you don’t know enough words to get your idea across. You must have known the words, in order to have had the idea in the first place. In the beginning, the Bible tells us, was the word.
7. KEEP PARAGRAPHS UNIFIED.
In general, paragraphs ought to be about one subject or one idea. Check each paragraph for topics and sentences that don’t fit. Cut these, or put them in other paragraphs where they do fit. And don’t write paragraphs that sound the way this one does. (See # 24, below.)
8. KEEP CONSTRUCTIONS PARALLEL.
The general rule is to express parallel ideas in the same grammatical form, which means you should use the same part of speech throughout any list of two or more parallel ideas. Here are some examples. “Her anger is not directed at me, but people like me.” (Her anger is not directed at me, but at people like me.) “The only means of lessening the number of homeless is the prevention of more homelessness and giving aid to those presently homeless.” (“...is to prevent more homelessness and to give aid to those presently homeless.”) These examples show only a few varieties of faulty parallelism; for more, consult any good grammar.
All this may seem picky and technical. It is not. Failure to maintain parallelism is one of the most common causes of ambiguity and awkwardness in sentences.
9. GO FROM BEGINNING TO END.
Stories can begin at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end. Most news stories, for instance, begin at the end: “Two motorists were killed yesterday and a third gravely injured when...” But the easiest and most natural way to organize your material is the way God did it in the Book of Genesis, chronologically. Jumping back and forth in time can be hard on both the reader and the writer. Unless you have a strong reason not to do so, take things in order.
10. CAN YOUR SUBJECT DO WHAT YOUR VERB SAYS IT CAN?
Too often the answer is no, as here: “Formerly each college gave its own entrance exams. The formation of the College Board attempted to standardize the mess.” Formations don’t attempt; people attempt.
For another instance of this problem, see the sample sentence in Rule # 2, above.
11. MAKE PRONOUNS AND ANTECEDENTS AGREE...
...and make it clear just which antecedent the pronoun refers to. The only way to solve this near-universal writing problem is to pay attention, sentence by sentence. Read what you have written, noting every pronoun. Work backwards from that pronoun until you come to your intended antecedent. Make sure they agree. Next, note whether your antecedent is singular or plural. Examine the rest of the sentence, and perhaps the preceding sentence, for other plural (or singular) nouns that a reader might mistake for your pronoun’s intended antecedent. Correct the problem. Simple as that — as long as you can spot a pronoun when you see one.
And that’s simple, too, with this list of America’s Top Forty Pronouns: I, me, mine, my, myself, you, your, yours, yourself, yourselves, he, his, him, himself, it, its, itself, we, our, ours, us, ourselves, they, their, theirs, them, themselves, who, whose, whom, whoever, whomever, everybody, anybody, somebody, everyone, anyone, someone, none, nobody.
When used to take the place of a noun, the following words are also pronouns: this, that, these, those, one, each, some, any, all, either, neither, many, more, much, most, other, another, what, which, both, several, few, whatever, and whichever.
12. DON’T TELL US; SHOW US.
“He is also very talented, and has won several awards. In 1984, he won the Koussevitsky Memorial Fellowship at the Tanglewood Music Center. In 1986, he took the Hans Haring first prize at the Salzburg Mozarteum Summer Academy. In 1987, he took the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute Fellowship Award.” By itself, the first sentence is so vague as to be meaningless. With what follows, the sentence is unnecessary. Just give the reader the facts, and trust her or him to add them up the same way you do.
13. NEVER USE A METAPHOR, SIMILE OR OTHER FIGURE OF SPEECH WHICH YOU ARE USED TO SEEING IN PRINT. (George Orwell)
14. NEVER USE A LONG WORD WHERE A SHORT ONE WILL DO. (Orwell)
15. NEVER USE A FOREIGN PHRASE, A SCIENTIFIC WORD OR A JARGON WORD IF YOU CAN THINK OF AN EVERYDAY ENGLISH EQUIVALENT. (Orwell)
16. “READ OVER YOUR COMPOSITIONS, AND WHEREVER YOU MEET WITH A PASSAGE WHICH YOU THINK IS PARTICULARLY FINE, STRIKE IT OUT.”
The quote is from Boswell’s Life of Johnson. This is a tough rule to apply, of course, since it involves killing your own favorite children. Do it anyway. Your character will be strengthened, as will your writing.
17. DON’T CREATE EXPECTATIONS YOU MIGHT NOT MEET.
“The most fascinating part is...It was interesting to...I was shocked to learn...A surprising thing then happened...” Say what you have to say without building it up in advance. If it is really fascinating, interesting, shocking, or surprising, then we will be fascinated, interested, shocked, or surprised.
18. DON’T OPEN A DOOR WITHOUT TAKING US THROUGH IT.
Any question you raise in the reader’s mind you should immediately answer. “He is widely acknowledged to be the second-best figure skater in the country.” Well? Who’s the first?
19. KEEP YOURSELF OUT OF THE STORY.
Some stories demand the writer’s presence. An account of your experiences as a Big Sister or a prison visitor, for instance, would suffer from your absence. But don’t intrude yourself unnecessarily. Don’t write, “When I asked Jones why he felt that way, he told me...” Write, “Jones said...” Don’t write, “Before I began protesting in the streets, I thought I should find out exactly what acid rain is and what problems it has created.” Just tell us what acid rain is, and what the problems are.
20. CATEGORICAL STATEMENTS ARE ALMOST ALWAYS WRONG.
Why “almost?” Because some categorical statement, somewhere, may be right or was once right or will someday be right. Therefore protect yourself. Don’t write, “All students cheat,” or, “Americans are peace-loving people.” Write, “Nearly all students cheat,” or, “Most Americans are peace-loving people.” A few words to be careful of: always, never, the only, unique, impossible, every, everyone, everybody, nobody, nothing, no, no one, none, anyone, all, the most, the best — and superlatives in general.
21. SPIN YOUR WHEELS WHEN STARTING OFF.
Most writers do, and so don’t worry about it. Probably it happens unconsciously, out of a need to warm up our motors before we really get started on the job. But don’t save these warming-up exercises just because you went to all the trouble of setting them down. Read back over your beginning, with the expectation that everything from a few lines to a few pages will turn out to be pure padding. Cut all of this until you arrive at your real beginning, which will generally have something to do with your paper’s thesis.
22. DON’T MAKE THE READER WATCH YOU SHIFTING SCENERY.
Your audience is there to watch the show, not the stagehands. And so don’t write things like, “However, when the teachers were asked if they thought that letters of recommendation should be abandoned, they responded negatively without exception.” Instead write, “None of the teachers thought letters of recommendation should be abandoned.”
23. DON’T OVER-EXPLAIN.
An example: “He argues against the recent increase in laws and ordinances that prohibit and restrict the act of smoking.” Probably the writer got to wondering if there weren’t perhaps some difference between a law and an ordinance. Better play it safe and toss both of them in. Wait a minute, though. Don’t those laws and ordinances sometimes say you can’t smoke anywhere in the whole building, and sometimes just say you can’t smoke in certain parts of the building? Better cover all bases by saying, “prohibit and restrict.”
Still better, though, just write, “He argues against the growth in legal restrictions on smoking.” Find the right word and use it. When you throw in too many “ands”, too many “ors,” you begin to sound fussy, like a lawyer. The lawyer’s job, in writing, is to foresee every conceivable challenge to her words; yours is only to make your meaning clear enough so that you can move on with your narrative.
The trouble sign to watch for here is the cluttering-up of your sentences with strings of nouns or verbs when a single one would do.
24. VARY THE LENGTH OF YOUR SENTENCES.
A succession of long sentences makes for heavy going. A succession of short sentences sounds choppy. This is another problem you can spot by reading your work aloud.
25. SAY, “SAY.”
Keep away from words like inform, admit, claim, declare, advise, inquire, request, reveal, disclose, explain, maintain, and state, when used as substitutes for ask, tell, and say. Lean on “say” as hard as you want to. It’s an inconspicuous little word. You can use it 10 times running and no one is likely to notice the repetitions.
Using “state” instead of “say” is a particularly sure sign that a paper is in very serious trouble. Consider this: “Did you hear what she stated about him?” Has anybody ever stated so stilted a statement? The writer who would set such a thing down on paper must somehow have come to believe that there are two English languages, one written and one spoken. In consequence, his paper is almost bound to be one long violation of the first (and most important) rule in this list.
Moreover, many of the substitutes for “say” have specific meanings that you may not be aware of. (“Claim,” for instance, suggests that the speaker is lying; “admit” suggests guilt; “disclose” suggests that we have just heard a secret.) If you’re not alert to these specific meanings, you risk being unclear, misleading, or unintentionally funny. (It’s okay to be intentionally funny, as in Ring Lardner’s short story about a little boy on a disaster-filled Sunday drive with his father: “‘Are we lorst, Daddy?’ I asked. ‘Shut up,’ he explained.”)
26. AVOID REPETITION.
Don’t worry about little words like “the” and “say” (and “and”), of course. But otherwise be careful of repeating the same words or grammatical constructions too close to each other.
27. END A SERIES WITH YOUR STRONGEST ELEMENT.
The right way: “In students, stress can lead to poor grades, college burn-out, depression, or even suicide.”
The wrong way: “Revolutionary Guards stoned adulterers to death, cut off the hands of thieves, raped women caught without veils, and urged children to attend Koranic schools.”
The right way, arrangement in ascending importance, is called auxesis. This will not be on the test.
28. TELL US WHO’S TALKING.
It’s annoying to come to the end of a quote and find nothing but a footnote number. Identify your speaker or author on the spot: “...according to Mayor Ray Flynn.” Then footnote Flynn’s name to tell us where his words came from: personal interview, book, periodical, whatever. And give enough information in your footnote or endnote so that we can find your source for ourselves — to check on your accuracy, to put the quote into context, or to look further into the matter.
29. AVOID CONDESCENSION.
Calling your reader a fool is no way to persuade him your argument is right. And so don’t say things like, “obviously,” “as informed readers will be aware,” “plainly,” “of course,” “it is common knowledge that...” All these suggest that you know a great deal more about practically everything than the reader does, and the poor sap is damned lucky to have you around to straighten him out. Professors often write this way, which is one reason why practically nobody reads them. There are other reasons, too.
30. KEEP TENSES CONSISTENT.
Decide on the past or the present, and stick with it. Don’t hop back and forth within a paper, and certainly not within a paragraph, and most certainly not within a single sentence.
31. TOO MUCH THERE THERE?
You can often cut “there is” and “there are” from your writing with no loss and some gain. Compare, “There are other factors which have also increased medical costs,” with, “Other factors have also increased medical costs.”
32. SET OFF NON-RESTRICTIVE CLAUSES WITH COMMAS...
...and don’t use commas around restrictive clauses. Getting the commas wrong in these cases can change, reverse, or destroy the meaning of a sentence. You can usually get them right, however, if you say your sentences aloud and pay attention to where the pauses naturally fall.
Consider this: “Harvard does not have a recruitment policy for minority faculty which allows individual deans to do as they wish in their departments.” And this: “The money will help pay off creditors of Connally who filed for bankruptcy in Austin on July 11.” In these sentences, the lack of commas before “which” and “who” changes the meanings to the opposite of what the writers intended.
Any good English handbook will tell you the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. So will your own ear, if you let it. Try reading the two sentences with and without the proper pauses.
33. ONLY SPLIT INFINITIVES WHEN YOU HAVE TO.
Let your ear guide you on this. Go ahead and split infinitives if the alternative is ungainly or hard to understand. But why write, “This is the most difficult aspect to accurately assess,” for instance?
34. SPELL OUT ACRONYMS ON FIRST USE.
After that, just use the initials. Example: “The Scholastic Aptitude Tests do not measure creativity, knowledge, energy, thoroughness, diligence, or most of the other characteristics likely to lead to success in later life. Nor do the SATs even test scholastic aptitude.”
35. CAPITALIZING RACES, NATIONALITIES, AND ETHNIC GROUPS:
Group designations derived from languages, religions, nations, or geographical areas are capitalized: Indians, Caucasians, Asian-Americans, Afro-Americans, Hispanics, Catholics, Shi’ite Moslems, Latins, French Canadians, and so on. Designations derived from color — white and black, principally — don’t need to be capitalized. If you want to capitalize them, go ahead. Do not, however, capitalize Blacks and lowercase whites (or vice versa). Be consistent.
36. CAPITALIZING TITLES.
When the title is used as part of the person’s name, capitalize it; when the person’s title or position are written separately, use lowercase. “Martingale was deputy director of the U.S. Information Agency,” but, “The responsible official in the USIA was Deputy Director Martingale.” “Randall made admiral at the age of 42,” but, “The fleet commander was Admiral Randall.”
37. ALOT IS NOT AN ENGLISH WORD.
Afew other non-words: abunch, apassel, abundle, abatch, awad, aslew, and awholelot.
38. AVOID OPEN-ENDED COMPARATIVES.
“Things go better with Coke.” Better than what? Than with Ballantine’s ale? Don’t be silly. Than with Drano? Well, possibly.
39. DON’T BEGIN A SENTENCE WITH NUMERALS.
Either spell out the number, or rework your sentence so that it starts with something else.
40. USE QUOTATION MARKS FOR QUOTATIONS.
Don’t use them to apologize for your own words, as in, “He could be a real ‘jerk’ when he got ‘worked up’ about something.” If you think something you’ve written is too slangy, then find another way to put it.
41. USE APOSTROPHES FOR INTERIOR QUOTES.
An interior quote is a quote within another quote. Here’s how to handle them: “The constitutional right to freedom of speech does not extend to the man who cries, ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater,” the Supreme Court said in its opinion.
42. IT’S = IT IS. ITS = OF IT.
The only logic to this is that the apostrophe represents the omitted “i” in the contraction “it’s.” Its ought to be the plural of it, as in, “This paragraph contains too many its.” And the possessive form of it ought logically to be it’s, except that this would cause confusion with... Oh, the hell with the whole thing. Just remember that the apostrophe stands for the missing “i” in “is” and you will be able to figure out which form is correct.
43. DON’T USE APOSTROPHES FOR PLURALS.
Write the SATs, not the SAT’S or the SAT’s; write the 1960s, not the 1960’s. Pay no attention when you see it done the wrong way in The New York Times. They do the best they can. (Note: at some point after I wrote this list, the Times finally corrected its usage manual. Cause and effect was probably not involved.)
44. A HYPHEN IS ONE HYPHEN; A DASH IS TWO HYPHENS.
One hyphen links words: drug-related, semi-smart, well-built. Two hyphens — a dash — push them apart. Hyphenate when you use two or more words before a noun as a single modifier: “Most 18- to 21-year-old males are registered for the draft.” (But, “The draft board registers all males who are 18 to 21 years old.”) An exception is made for adverbs ending in -ly, as in, “The partially decomposed body.”
45. TO LINK COMPLETE SENTENCES, USE A SEMICOLON.
The sentences should generally be close in meaning, of course, like those in Rule 39, above. A comma in these cases is not correct. To put the matter a little differently, use a semicolon and not a comma between independent clauses not joined by and, but, or, nor, for & yet.
46. SET OFF YEARS AND STATES WITH COMMAS:
“April 4, 1988, was the twentieth anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.” And, “Olathe, Kansas, is halfway across the country.”