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Use the period. And other writing lessons.

Most writing teachers get even the questions wrong, let alone the answers. So says our correspondent, himself a former writing instructor. And he's got old memos to prove it.

Having waded through Stanley Fish’s prolix (yes, look it up) articles in the New York Times, about teaching writing in college, I am amused that teachers still ask what seems to me to be the wrong question. They are forever asking, “How to teach writing?” The more important question is, “What is the rhetorical nature of what people read?”

Guess what? Readability has been studied so that guys like Robert Gunning in Chicago and Rudy Flesch in New York made a living teaching the writers at the NYT, the Wall Street Journal, and Time how to write so that people would read their stuff. You want to see what the best writing in America looks like? Read any story on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Count the words per sentence. Look for the images, watch for the coherence and unity. Catch the transitions.

Sure, a lot had to do about content (do you really care about sow-belly futures?) but a lot also had to do about craft. If the piece was not crafted right, readers would bail out. And never come back.

A big part of the problem of teaching writing in schools and colleges is that it is totally (as the kids would say) irrelevant to the way students live their lives. To communicate they “message.” Why are they writing a paper? Because the teacher assigned it. What is the goal? To get an “A.” Yet in the world of work, the writer’s knowledge of purpose and how to achieve it is paramount. A businessperson wants to persuade or convince or seal the deal. And it does not happen with glossy b.s. It happens in cogent prose.

For years I taught writing seminars to business firms, accounting firms, hospital employees, banking and insurance folks, lawyers even. (Gag them all with their redundancies.) I loved doing it. I collected samples of the memos, letters, and reports they wrote. And when it came time to get their attention, I would project on the overhead one of their actual memos (kept anonymous) along with my rewrite. The rewrite was clearer, better organized, had a point, and was maybe 30 percent shorter. It also had the voice of authority, not that of maundering around trying to figure out what to say. Rewriting this stuff does not take the talents of John Updike. Just adherence to a few principles.

If I were to paste the first and most important principle of communicative writing, it would be this: Use the period sooner! I guarantee you that if your sentences regularly go into the third line, your reader will bail out. The scary thing I learned was that most working folks had no intention of having the words they wrote mean anything; they just wanted to scatter some verbiage around and send the piece to another computer.

The beginning of an adult writing class was always a challenge. Most of these folks had been told by their boss to take the class. And of course they thought they knew how to write, having been at it for years. Their arms would be defensively folded. But I’d go into my Ray Bolger routine and the body language changed radically. They became lost in the moment. I told them that most of what they had been taught was irrelevant. (For some weird reason all the folks who had been to Catholic schools had been taught never to begin a sentence with “I.”)

Probably the biggest discovery was that they could write how they speak, grammatically. And to value conciseness above all. OK, with the engineers and the bureaucrats I had to do a routine about active and passive voice. They learned that the importance of writing was not to impress but to persuade. And this is done with small words. They did not need to imitate the meaningless important-sounding generalizations that flood American business writing every day. They could listen to the PR guy talk about how “It’s important to maximize the synergies of our two new companies,” without ever asking, “What did he say?” The saddest fact of American business is that if the boss babbles baloney (which an underling probably wrote) everyone else will follow.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Oct 1, 8:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Dude, shut up! I get paid big bucks to rewrite other people's incoherent business correspondence. If you give all my tricks away, how am I going to make a living?!? :-)

Posted Thu, Oct 1, 8:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Wonderful. Thank you. WKA

Posted Thu, Oct 1, 8:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Most writers (as the author illustrates) also need someone else to review product before it is sent -- for example, to avoid flubs like "to catch and old" (paragraph #9). And the mind of the writer sometimes fills in words that should be in the text but aren't (see the missing preposition in paragraph #10). And then there are those pesky rules about comma/no comma and question marks in/outside quotation marks (the author presents the latter both ways in the last paragraph).

Overall points well presented however.

Posted Thu, Oct 1, 1:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Inspired by Mayoral Issues papers, I'll bet.

afreeman

Posted Sun, Oct 4, 3:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Great piece, especially the last two paragraphs. But do most people really hate to write, and is that really the cause of so much bad business prose? I guess what I see more of is people who think they can write well, who really can't. But I suppose it depends on the circles you run in (or in which you run, take your pick).

Posted Sun, Oct 4, 3:52 p.m. Inappropriate

And yes, Richard, even the best writers need editors! (Full disclosure: I'm an editor :) )

Posted Tue, Oct 6, 11:37 p.m. Inappropriate

The last paragraphs make a lot of sense, but two pieces of advice earlier on contradict them. I avoid absolutes in favour of discourse-based guidelines for judgement. Fot example, shorter sentences are not always the way to go, because complex ideas can require complex sentences. Nor can scientists write their research articles 'the way they speak' and still expect to be published. I teach and edit at PhD and postdoc level, admittedly a different sphere from comp 101, but my 'students' were all undergrads once, and believe me, they remember the 'absolutes' handed to them years before by writing instructors, useful or not.

enzo1990

Posted Wed, Oct 7, 7:31 a.m. Inappropriate

As a copyeditor, copywriter (and rewriter), and teacher of writing, I can agree with much of what Davis says here, but I would say the most critical issue isn't sentence length but sentence cohesion. The downfall of the long-strung-together sentences Davis (and we all) dislike is the ambiguity of the logical connections. In my grammar class, we call this the ",and...and" syndrome. When several ideas are vaguely connected by non-specific conjunctions, then, yes, a few more periods might be an improvement. However, an even better solution would be to clarify those connections through precise subordinate clauses, pithy participle phrases, and other valuable tools of the well-crafted long sentence. I completely agree with enzo1990 that "complex ideas can require complex sentences." If we abandon these long, complex sentences (by such public criticism or absolutist teaching), then less time and energy will be spent perfecting the craft of these long, complex sentences--and our thought will be all the poorer as a result.
By the way, the best rhetorical strategy is to balance the long and the short. Explain a complex idea in a long, well-connected complex sentence; then follow it with a short, pithy sentence that restates/summarizes the point of the longer sentence. One sentence for completeness and complexity; then another sentence for reflection and "catching one's breath."

jdhill

Posted Thu, Oct 8, 11:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Enzo: You may be editing at PhD/postdoc level, but even in that lofty sphere, it's a good idea to look at your stuff before you hit the "submit" button. The word is most commonly spelled "judgment" and I think you meant "for" instead of "fot". It's hard to tell whether you meant "useful or not" to refer to the handouts or the writing instructors, but I'll assume that in this case it referred to the handouts.

sarah

Posted Sat, Oct 10, 2:34 a.m. Inappropriate

Gardiner Davis's pragmatic but surprisingly myopic article motivates me to teach with even more precision and passion how to effectively use semicolons, dashes, words often confused, ellipses, assonance -- yes, I do have a copy of Lynne Truss's _Eats, Shoots & Leaves..._; but I also own June Casagrande's _Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies_.

Should I reinforce the importance of proofreading?

Cheers -- hear! hear! -- to the above collection of comments.

Geoff M. Pope

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