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Writing with style

Patricia Pereira-Sethi

A dear friend of mine from New York, true-blue guru of the very latest in the international world of literature and art, flagged me recently to tell me to peruse Harold Evans’ latest foray entitled: Do I Make Myself Clear?

Evans, the respected former editor of the Sunday Times of London and author of several books, who has edited everything from the crucial files of battlefield reporters to the complex thought-processes of political authority Henry Kissinger, brings his indispensable insight to us all in his definite guide to writing well. He sees current text drowning in a fog of imprecision and bad writing, riddled with murky words, qualifiers, and subordinate clauses that clog a sentence and route expression into obscurity. He abhors puffed-up phrases, hyperbole and exaggerated language, passive voices, mangled and misused words, dreadful malapropisms which insult the intelligence. He excoriates verbs twisted into nouns, buzzwords and hackneyed terms that make the language we use to deliver news, exchange opinions, trade stories, give direction, and analyse politics completely incomprehensible and unacceptable.

He blames the Internet because “it makes it easier to write today and that’s why you get so much garbage,” he says. “Everybody believes that by producing a paragraph, they have anointed themselves writers, novelists, playwrights and poets.” The right words thrust oxygen into our ideas, but the digital era, with all of its TTYL, LMK, and WTF, has been cutting off that palpable flow. The compulsion to be precise has vanished from our culture, and in writing of every kind we see a trend towards more speed and quick information, with far less clarity.

When I was at Newsweek magazine, the most important and helpful comment on writing came from a senior editor who suggested during a weekly prep class that all we had to do to create good work was “to have something to say, and to say it as clearly as you can. That is the first and only secret of style. You are not there to impress your reader with fancy words stitched together in a manner which makes it difficult to comprehend. You are here to make yourself understood by the normal average reader. Let your copy flow easily and smoothly over the reader’s eyes and brain and tongue.”

That was my Eureka moment and Evans reiterates the same idea. “What really matters is making your meaning clear beyond a doubt,” he writes: “and the key to clarity is being concise. Although that may seem obvious, it is apparently anything but, judging by the sprawling mess of runaway language that constitutes so much writing these days, both in print and on the internet.” He wonders in his copy whether “such writing has been intentionally generated to obscure truth and straddle fences, yet so much is the result of lazy and inept writing and extremely careless editing and proofreading.”

The book is not only admonitory but prescriptive as well. One chapter titled, “Ten Shortcuts to Making Yourself Clear,” includes using the active rather than the passive voice (“Vigorous, clear, and precise writing demands sentences with muscle, strong active verbs cast in the active voice”); being specific (“All great writing focuses on the significant details of human life in simple, concrete terms”); putting people first (“Aim to make the sentences bear directly on the reader if you want to hold his attention”). Evans has no gripe with “monologophobia,” a term originally coined by Theodore Bernstein, Columbia University professor and former New York Times assistant managing editor. Bernstein once mused that a writer would rather be caught naked on Fifth Avenue in front of the Saks department store than use the same word or the same name twice in a paragraph. There is no shame … in using the same word twice, writes Evans. “The important thing in all these issues about language is whether the meaning is clear? Know what you want to say, adhere to the meaning of what you want to say, and cling to that as fast as you can — and then read it again to steep yourself in its cadence and rhythmic flow.”

Above all, he recommends that we avoid hyperbole and exaggeration to prevent our copy from descending into a rant. Bluster, histrionics and tirades in text do not get a positive nod from most readers, especially intellectuals. If you need to spew your anger out on issues, then do it in the privacy of your home or bathroom. Not on paper for public perusal. If everything you write augurs catastrophe and impending doom; if bellicosity and anger disgorges on paper with few upbeat and positive points, you run the risk of becoming a self-righteous, pompous, preachy pundit who thinks that he, and only he, knows it all and no one else. The Superior Supreme Being! And any editor who dusts off all responsibility with a caveat that claims that “such copy expresses the private view of the individual,” is shedding his moral compass. An editor has an ethical responsibility to his readership to exorcise copy which regularly rolls out negativity and deep pessimism. Content control remains firmly in the domain of the editor. When French writer Émile Zola remarked that his prose style was “forged on the terrible anvil of daily deadlines,” he added that “the anvil of journalism is no use without the hammer and tongs of a great editor.”

Evans provides practical examples of how editing and rewriting can make for better communication, even in the digital age. Do I make Myself Clear? is an essential text, and one that will provide every writer and editor with advice at his shoulder-blades. The brilliant dramatist and actor Alan Alda comments: “Clarity and wit have something in common, and it is Harry Evans. He clears a path through the thorny underbrush that stands between us and meaning, and he does it with cutting humour and graceful charm. He certainly does make himself clear, and us, too.”

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