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Jewish World Review
July 16, 2008
/ 13 Tamuz 5768
Cut The Verbal Fat
In a letter to a 12-year-old boy, Mark Twain wrote, "I notice you use plain,
simple language, short words, and brief sentences. That is the way to write
English it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and
flowers and verbosity creep in."
Alas, with most of us, as we grow older, fluff and flowers and verbosity do
creep in. Writing today often has too much fat, too little muscle bulk without
strength. Much of what we read these days ranges from slightly flabby to
grossly obese. As children, we wrote sentences like "See Dick run." As adults,
we are more likely to write, "It is imperative that we assiduously observe
Richard as he traverses the terrain at an accelerated rate of speed." We gain
girth and lose mirth and so does our prose.
What happens to people's writing in the years between childhood and maturity?
For one thing, their reasons for writing change. The child writes for the
best of reasons to tell somebody something that is worth telling. Little Janie
Jones wants her friends to know about her dog, Spot. Her only concern is to
share her joy that "Spot is the bestest dog in the whole wide world."
Mr. Jones, Janie's dad, also has something worthwhile to write about his
company's new marketing plan, which may or may not be the "bestest" marketing
plan in the industry. But his real reason for writing a long memo about
the plan is that he wants to be perceived as having had "input" into the plan's
development. As he writes, he worries about the impression his writing might
make on his colleagues, especially his boss. He chooses his words carefully
the more and the longer, the better. Even if his instinct tells him to write simply,
he's afraid to, lest his memo not be taken seriously.
Janie has no such fear. While she uses a simple, clear, unaffected secondgrade
vocabulary, her dad draws on marketing terms he learned while earning
his MBA. Relying heavily on the jargon of his business, he throws in a couple
of viable alternatives, a new set of parameters, and a plan for prioritization
that should be implemented at this point in time the bureaucrat's 17-letter
phrase for now. When it's done, he has produced a bloated, tedious, pompous
piece of writing full of sound and fury signifying very little.
Far from contributing to the reader's enlightenment, wordiness enshrouds
meaning in a fog of confusion. "Writing improves in direct ratio to the things
we can keep out of it that shouldn't be there," advises writing guru William
Zinsser. Cutting the fat is probably the quickest and surest way to improve. No
matter how solid is your grasp of grammar, punctuation, spelling,
and other fundamentals, you cannot write well unless you train
yourself to write with fewer words.
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JWR contributor Richard Lederer is a language maven. More than a million of his books, which have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selections, are in print. His latest work is Presidential Trivia: The Feats, Fates, Families, Foibles, and Firsts of Our American Presidents
© 2008, Richard Lederer