Why total freedom of expression is a reader’s worst nightmare

A longtime reader asked me about news writing, and writing in general, after complaining about the sorry state of writing these days. I think a lot of things are in a sorry state, and the writing is a reflection of that. But maybe if we can fix the writing a little, it’ll help everything else, right?

Kurt Vonnegut once said writers should pity the readers, who have to identify thousands of little marks on paper and make sense of them immediately, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after studying it for 12 long years.

He says to simplify and clarify.

As writers, we’d rather live by Zeuxis’ mantra that criticism is easier than craftsmanship. But one way to avoid criticism is to make sure the readers understand what we’re writing in the first place.
Think of Shakespeare for a minute. When was the last time you picked up a Shakespeare book and read it just for fun? It’s probably been a long time, because nobody talks like that anymore. Reading Shakespeare is hard. And those of you who think it’s easy–both of you–can go back to reading Chaucer in the original Middle English.

And there are several things we can do as writers that can make us nearly as inaccessible as Shakespeare. There are at least six rules that help you avoid them.

Consistency

There is a book called the Associated Press Stylebook. Most newspapers follow it, and have their own local stylebook as well to cover local stuff the AP doesn’t mention. Stylebooks are what a writer consults when unsure whether to write Kmart, KMart, or K-Mart. What’s in stylebooks is highly arbitrary, but it ensures consistency. I know that Kmart, KMart, K-Mart, and “The K Market” are all the same place, but does everyone? I can’t assume that. In particular, a recent immigrant whose first language wasn’t English may not know that.

Now, in my writing, I go against the AP Stylebook occasionally. I insist on writing “Walgreen Drug,” for instance. That’s because I hate misused apostrophes, and that’s a way to write around the problem. The sign in front says “Walgreens,” which literally means that they sell walgreens there, whatever a walgreen is. What they mean to say is that Walgreen owns the place.

Yes, it makes me sound like a curmudgeon. But I’m consistent. If I were writing for a large audience, I would use whatever the AP Stylebook says to use.

Jargon

This is a really important thing. When I dug my Dad’s Lionel trains out of a corner of my basement and found that two of them didn’t run, I went to the library and checked out a book about repairing them. Among other things, it suggested removing the motor and cleaning it out with mineral spirits and a large paint brush.

The book did not say what mineral spirits are, or where to get them. And I recall it took me a long time to find out what they are. Today you can just go to Wikipedia, but in 2003 you couldn’t. They were too busy making sure the Britney Spears entry was up to date and hadn’t gotten to it yet.

For what it’s worth, mineral spirits are a specific type of paint thinner, and you can find it at any hardware store in the paint aisle. Somehow I lived to the age of 28 or so before I ever needed to know that. For all I knew, it was something you bought at a liquor store, since those places advertise “wine and spirits.” It’s not too much of a long shot–some people use Everclear to clean circuit boards.

Sometimes you can’t avoid jargon, but at the very least you can pause for a few words to explain it. Instead of writing “clean the motor with mineral spirits and a paintbrush,” write, “clean the motor with mineral spirits and a paintbrush, both of which you can find at a hardware store.”

I got a harsh reminder of this from a reader of my book. The book made extensive use of the free, open-source program Info-Zip. In late 2000, a reader took my publisher and me to task, since he went to download the program, and all he could find was a newer version. He said that since he couldn’t find the specific version of Info-Zip I referred to, he didn’t trust the book or me.

Presumably he’s not reading this today.

Had I interjected “or the current version” when I first referred to the program, I might have avoided that problem. I know that Info-Zip is backward compatible, but not everyone does.

Using non-mainstream vocabulary

If possible, it’s best to avoid both slang and big words. I’m not really doing anyone any favors by writing “deleterious” when I could just write “bad.” Mostly I’m just presuming that I know more than the reader. Most likely, if I didn’t, the reader wouldn’t be reading, so why do I need to rub it in?

On the other extreme, you don’t want to use the language of the common street thug. The square suburbanite yuppies will understand some of those words, but not all of them.

By some counts, there are more than a million words in the English language now. It’s impossible for any single person to know all of them.

There is a subset of the English language that PhDs, square suburbanite yuppies, and street thugs alike will all understand. Confining ourselves to those words isn’t a tragedy. The French manage to get by with 35,000 words.

There is a chance that this goes against what your English teachers taught you. Partly this is because their job is to teach you as many words as possible, so they make using new words part of your writing assignment. At Mizzou, when journalism students take straight English classes, they drive their instructors nuts because they write everything on roughly a sixth-grade level.

My question to the writer is what you want to teach. When I write, I’m not trying to broaden my readers’ knowledge of the English language. I’m trying to teach them how to fix computers and toys. If I insist on teaching them new words like “unctuous,” I risk getting in the way of my main objective.

Buzzwords

Today a coworker read something to me that was completely useless. The sentence had the words “transitioning from” near the beginning, a bunch of dated technology buzzwords from 5-10 years ago, followed by the word “to,” followed by a buttload of hip, chic technology buzzwords of 2010 or 2011.

Perhaps the word “bunch” would be a more polite phrase to use in this case, but trust me, when I heard the sentence, my first reaction was a word less polite than “buttload.” But similar.

Presumably, they’re trying to change something from what they used to think was good into what they think is good now. All the buzzwords even crowded out what it is they’re trying to improve. I think they’re trying to clean up a server room, but for all I know they might be trying to make their bulldozers more fuel-efficient.

Loading up your writing with buzzwords doesn’t impress anyone worth impressing. Tell your readers what you know and what it will do for them. They’ll appreciate you not wasting their time.

Paying at least lip service to grammar

I am not a stickler when it comes to grammar. One good way to annoy me is to say, “Let’s look at that sentence in Latin.” English is not a language of Latin descent, so it hardly makes sense to impose all of the rules of Latin on it.

But once again, if you follow the basic rules of English grammar, you widen your audience. PhDs will understand you, as will street thugs.

Once again, I’ll refer to the timeless The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Follow the rules outlined in this 105-page book, and you’ll do just fine.

If you want to go a bit deeper, I’m partial to Working with Words, by Brian Brooks and James Pinson. I linked to the edition I’m most familiar with. Used copies are cheap. At 256 pages, it goes longer than Strunk and White, but it also functions as a good reference. It’s large enough to be helpful, while being small enough to avoid being cumbersome.

Brian Brooks is now associate dean of Mizzou’s School of Journalism and was one of my favorite professors, not that my opinion of him ranks all that high on the list of accolades he’s received in his career.

Bias and opinion

One of my neighbors in college once started a sentence by saying, “You’re a journalist, so you have an opinion on everything.” And with those 10 words, he pretty much nailed it. Media outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch claim to be objective and unbiased, but they’re lying.

Completely eliminating bias and opinion is virtually impossible if you’re writing about anything less straightforward than how to take the training wheels off a bicycle.

The key is not letting your bias and opinion be so overpowering that it gets in the way of what you need to say. Why you think something is much more important than what you think, and thinking that way just because you belong to a certain group or demographic–or worse yet, because that view makes you more money–isn’t useful to anyone.

When I write about how to do something, I state what I use and why I use it. It’s what I believe to be the best or the most practical way to do something at the time. If you think differently, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an idiot. Someone reading it 10 years later may have better tools available than I did at the time I wrote it.

All too often today, pundits tell their followers what to think, and anyone who thinks differently is an idiot. That’s awfully presumptuous. Mike Royko was a lot of things, but perhaps what endeared him the most to his readers was that they never thought he was looking down on them. He only looked down on bureaucrats, and then, once again, he always told you exactly why.

I also find it amusing that Royko was saying essentially the same things in 1964 as he did in 1997, and in 1964, that made him a liberal, but it made him a conservative 30 years later.

A good rule to follow, I think, is to ask what value your opinion is adding right there. If it’s adding value, then by all means put it in. If it’s just extra words, then leave it out and spend your words on something that adds value. Attention spans are short these days.

Yep, attention spans are short and this piece is 1796 words long. Bye for now.

3 thoughts on “Why total freedom of expression is a reader’s worst nightmare

  • January 4, 2011 at 2:40 pm
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    All I can say in response is quidquid Latine dictum sit altum videtur. And that’s not just your Grammar talking.

  • January 5, 2011 at 12:11 am
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    If you want my opinion… I’d say you made a great point by emphasizing how the author’s opinions are secondary to his job, which is reporting the facts. Bias and opinion will creep in, but should be avoided. No better example than the message boards at IMDB. I don’t want to hear whether you loved or hated a film, I want to hear WHY, even if I don’t agree with your opinion. When one does that well, by means of gud ritten English, I’ll pay attention whether or not I even agree with you!

    “Eschew obfuscation” That was a tip from an English teacher I’ll never forget. If you can’t say something which even a seven year-old kid can understand, you probably don’t have the thought clear in your own head.

    Please don’t turn perfectly good nouns into adjectives or adverbs because you can’t think of the appropriate modifier. Go buy a printed thesaurus and make friends with synonyms. “Impactful” is the most egregious, blatant and obvious example of this odious, pervasive and malignant trend.

    Who the heck is Zeuxis? Love his quote.

    • January 5, 2011 at 9:41 pm
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      I’m occasionally guilty of turning nouns into adjectives or adverbs, but usually for a reason, and for effect. I agree too many people do it too frequently now. It’s tempting. To say, “IBM Edseled the PCjr” makes a strong point in merely four words.

      Zeuxis? He wasn’t a writer. He was a Greek painter during the time of Aristotle. I forgot where I first saw the quote, but it’s one of my all-time favorites.

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