Monday, July 28, 2008


Three pieces about the craft of writing that I enjoyed reading.

For college students: How to say nothing in five hundred words by Paul McHenry Roberts. Here's one of the examples for coloured words -- words loaded with associations:

Or consider the word intellectual. This would seem to be a complimentary term, but in point of fact it is not, for it has picked up associations of impracticality and ineffectuality and general dopiness.

And this was written over forty or fifty years ago!

* * *

How to write with style by Kurt Vonnegut.

Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you're writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an egomaniac or a chowderhead --- or, worse, they will stop reading you.

The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not. Don't you yourself like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show you or make you think about? Did you ever admire an emptyheaded writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.

So your own winning style must begin with ideas in your head.

* * *

Writing, Typing, Economics by John Kenneth Galbraith.

Complexity and obscurity have professional value—they are the academic equivalents of apprenticeship rules in the building trades. They exclude the outsiders, keep down the competition, preserve the image of a privileged or priestly class. The man who makes things clear is a scab. He is criticized less for his clarity than for his treachery.

Additionally, and especially in the social sciences, much unclear writing is based on unclear or incomplete thought. It is possible with safety to be technically obscure about something you haven't thought out. It is impossible to be wholly clear on something you do not understand. Clarity thus exposes flaws in the thought. The person who undertakes to make difficult matters clear is infringing on the sovereign right of numerous economists, sociologists, and political scientists to make bad writing the disguise for sloppy, imprecise, or incomplete thought. One can understand the resulting anger.[...]


  1. Gautam said...

    Thanks in particular for the link to the Galbraith essay. My father always used him as an example of perfect academic writing - spare, witty and elegant, without a trace of artifice.
    Its easy to see why.

  2. Abi said...

    Gautam: Galbraith is one of my favourites, too. I'm glad you enjoyed that piece.