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Good writing

Bill Benson

October 2, 2020

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the wrong word is really a large matter. ‘Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Some writers choose big words to fill up a typewritten page. For example, William F. Buckley, Jr. built an extensive vocabulary and pulled it out often to impress his readers. He once wrote, “I react against declamatory rudeness that is coercive in intent.” Now what did he mean?

I think he meant to say that when he hears another person using rude words, or trying to bully someone else, he reacts, but how he reacts, he does not say. Does he get mad or stubborn or dismissive? His big words leave the reader wondering.

Other writers choose small words, single syllable words to great affect. For example, Amy Tan in her 1989 novel, “The Good Luck Club,” wrote, “The mother accepted this and closed her eyes. The sword came down and sliced back and forth, up and down, whish!whish!whish! And the mother screamed and shouted, cried out in terror and pain. But when she opened her eyes, she saw no blood, no shredded flesh.”

The writing coach Roy Peter Clark, in his book, “Writing Tools,” said that Tan used in that passage, “Fifty-five words in all, forty-eight of one syllable. Only one word, “accepted,” of three syllables. Even the book title works this way.”

Imagine, if you can, a story of one syllable words. “The cat ran at the dog. The dog scratched at the door. The man let the dog in. The cat hissed at the door.” Interesting, but it sounds child-like.

We can display to the world our mastery of the English language by choosing a big, obscure word, or we can display our humility by selecting a small well-known word.

William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, in their classic book, “The Elements of Style,” listed a series of rules for better writing. Number fourteen is “Avoid fancy words,” a rule that Mr. Buckley ignored.

A writer though who mixes in big and little words, long and short sentences, gives her writing variety, that dash of spice that readers crave.

Also, most writing teachers, including Strunk and White, encourage their students to avoid the passive voice when constructing a sentence, but even the best writers fall into the passive voice trap.

For example, Horace Coon, in his book, “Speak Better, Write Better English,” wrote, “Good writing is frequently a matter of rewriting,” I would transform Coon’s sentence into, “The more you polish your sentences and words, the better you will write.” “She reworks her stories often; her writing sparkles.

Good writers rework their sentences often, and they work hard to expand their vocabularies.

The dictionary publishing company Merriam-Webster publishes wall calendars, a word a day for each day of the year. The seven words for this week include: Dead hand, the oppressive influence of the past; scape goat, one that bears the blame for others; elysian, delightful; junket, a trip made by an official at public expense; enmity, a mutual hatred or ill will; vaudeville, stage entertainment; and lackadaisical, lacking life, spirit or zest.

Just for fun, a writer could try to work those seven words into a single sentence, although five syllables reside inside “lackadaisical.”

The better writers enjoy phrase and sentence construction. For example, Mark Twain would match two words, first an adverb and then an adjective, and both words would begin with the same letter.

He would describe a trivial idea as “stupefyingly simple,” or a human calamity as “pathetically pitiable,” or a rebellious adolescent as “blissfully belligerent,” or a gem as “delightfully divine.”

Roy Peter Clark had this to say about good writing.

“Simplicity is not handed to the writer. It is the product of imagination and craft, a created effect. Remember that clear prose is not just sentence length and word choice. It derives first from a sense of purpose, a determination to inform. What comes next is the hard work of critical thinking.”

In other words, a writer can mix up big and small words, long and short sentences, avoid the passive voice, write in the active voice, and still lead readers down the wrong path. What she or he misses is that critical thinking part.

The literary agent A. O. Scott wrote, “The real culture war or revolution is between the human intellect, and its human enemies: sloth, cliché, and pretension.” Sloth refers to laziness, cliché is passing around stock phrases, and pretension is an artful form of lying or deception.

If you co-join all three words into a single idea, you will find yourself in a world where unthinking people repeat a series of conventional, trite, or unconsidered opinions or sentiments.

We need good writers who display the courage and talent to punch holes in this world’s series of half-baked, even outrageous ideas, using an expanded vocabulary, and an active voice.