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January 10, 2007 7:43 PM   Subscribe

How to make your writing simple, clear, and compelling. (And a little on getting published.)
posted by serazin (81 comments total) 140 users marked this as a favorite

 
Previously:
bad writing, unclear speech, and Orwell's brilliant Politics and The English Language.
posted by serazin at 7:43 PM on January 10, 2007


Hah, I saw this FPP and I was about to link to Orwell's essay.
posted by delmoi at 7:48 PM on January 10, 2007


I hate it when I develop a verbal tick or as the third link calls it, a crutch word. Makes me cringe when I notice it in an email or submission that's already left Chateau Mouse.

Good post.
posted by fleetmouse at 7:54 PM on January 10, 2007


Cease your hegemonic discourse!
-nice post.
posted by isopraxis at 7:55 PM on January 10, 2007


Writey-o!
posted by wendell at 8:03 PM on January 10, 2007


Some of the 10 criticisms under 'Compelling' are actually good practice in technical writing... :)
posted by anthill at 8:06 PM on January 10, 2007


The Elements of Style from my alma mater.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:20 PM on January 10, 2007


I am interested to see whether or not the comments in this thread are simple, clear, and compelling in keeping with the themes of the post, or if people wuss out the whole time all the way down to the end what with "good post" and "nice legs" or "great post" (please correct for Capitalization and punctuation mistakes.) 'cause this could end up becoming a good showing for many, if not all of MetaFilter's notch-dog writers.
posted by carsonb at 8:23 PM on January 10, 2007


Thanks for the reminder, ZenMasterThis, I had put TEoS on my Christmas wishlist last year but alas, did not receive it. I think my folks thought it was a dress and grooming guide.
Which I also need, but that's for another FPP.

Nice post!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:24 PM on January 10, 2007


Nice legs.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:30 PM on January 10, 2007


Thanks! I use my knees to type.
posted by serazin at 8:36 PM on January 10, 2007


I just want my writulations to enportify me to the U S presidenciate, like the current incumbifier.
posted by hexatron at 8:49 PM on January 10, 2007 [2 favorites]


There's also a classic NASA technical manual about simple and straightforward scientific/technical writing, but it's on my other desk I can't locate it online now. It's super-good.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:03 PM on January 10, 2007


I would venture the opinion that most writing advice that prizes "precise and spare" above all else is anti-brain bullshit, and deeply undervalues a beloved-of-me human tendency to obscure meaning where we want most to convey it, and to convey meaning where our own message is most occult to us.

Road signs use clear language; let humans make humans send hot swords through the buttery knots of their Gordian words, amen! As for adverbs, there is a reason Tom Swiftie loves them. And as for lists, God keeps them in his pocket. And as for repetition, better that a person should have virtuosic command over a tiny stable of vocabulary than that he should have only a nodding acquaintace with every wild-eyed paint that walks the face of the earth.

Plain language indeed. What an oxymoron, Tom said mutely.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 9:12 PM on January 10, 2007 [18 favorites]


Thank you, maybe there is hope, in the end.

NASA manual? I wonder where they took their "don't do it this way" examples. Aliens probably.
posted by carmina at 9:23 PM on January 10, 2007


Rule #13: Omit needless words.

Though Powerful Religious Baby's use of anaphora is compelling.
posted by exlotuseater at 9:32 PM on January 10, 2007


Speaking of which....
posted by semmi at 9:33 PM on January 10, 2007


Who is it that said something like If you [write a phrase] of which you are particularly proud then strike it out?
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 9:37 PM on January 10, 2007


I would venture the opinion that most writing advice that prizes "precise and spare" above all else is anti-brain bullshit, and deeply undervalues a beloved-of-me human tendency to obscure meaning where we want most to convey it, and to convey meaning where our own message is most occult to us.

While that may certainly be true of creative writing, that first link is a government site for teaching government employees how to write for the governed, i.e. the anti-brain masses.

Their before and after illustrations are pretty good, IMHO.
posted by wah at 9:42 PM on January 10, 2007


The point to the List above is that even the best writers make these mistakes

... in which case, they're not mistakes are they?

SHOW, DON'T TELL

then why do they call it storyTELLing and why don't we do it with cameras?

this list of 10 mistakes isn't bad by any means, but i'd like to think of it as "10 things you don't want to do a lot of" rather than "mistakes" ... and it's best to pay attention to these while revising rather than while you're writing, because you'll drive yourself nuts and sound stilted

also, no 1 is just plain silly ... if the "repeats" happen pages apart, how repetitive are they and how many people would notice?
posted by pyramid termite at 9:55 PM on January 10, 2007


MonkeySaltedNuts: that would be Samuel Johnson.

exlotuseater: if it was good enough for Christopher Smart, it's good enough for me!

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.

posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 9:56 PM on January 10, 2007


my god, I love Jubilate Agno. Smart was crazygenuis.
posted by exlotuseater at 10:02 PM on January 10, 2007


oh, dear. crazygenius.
posted by exlotuseater at 10:03 PM on January 10, 2007


I just looked through the plain language before and after for one part of the Johnson Space Center Manual.

It is rather hard to compare these two because it appears the whole manual has been rewritten and these might not cover the same material (i.e. the non-overlap might be covered in other chapters).

The before version is very dry but good if you really need to know what specific regulations are involved.

The after one is good if you want to find out what regulations apply to you. (which I guess is the reason most readers would consult such a manual).

However I really hate the FAQ style of the after document. FAQs are overused to communicate information that could just be stated directly. Packaging info in a FAQ seems rather condescending.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 10:11 PM on January 10, 2007


For reals! For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 10:12 PM on January 10, 2007


He's not my cup of tea, but here's Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:13 PM on January 10, 2007


Powerful Religious Baby: I think the "precise and spare" ethic is useful advice for anyone who is beginning to write creatively, and that is probably at whom this article is directed. None but the most preternaturally gifted writers will be able to use complicated language to their advantage early in their development as a writer. It is better that they be told how to express their ideas clearly and efficiently, as opposed to blindly attempting to write 'beautiful' prose without any attention paid to meaning or utility.

Even so, there is a lot of precise writing that is beautiful and captivating. By no means are precision and beauty mutually exclusive in writing.
posted by invitapriore at 10:13 PM on January 10, 2007


I can't understand a single thing you are saying.
posted by Dizzy at 10:26 PM on January 10, 2007


this is why we should use words that have just one sound group to them, diz, so all can know what the words mean and no one feels dumb and we're all one glad group at home

all those two sound group words and god help us three and four sound group words make the guy who writes sound too smart for his own good and soon we all look at the big words and don't know what they mean when we see them strung out, for we are in love with the words too much to work out what they say

this is a write that is clear and sharp and no rule gets bent ... it is best to write like this
posted by pyramid termite at 10:34 PM on January 10, 2007


You all spell correctly and use punctuation, I really think we'll be fine. I can't, however, speak for the world beyond MetaFilter.

Rambling and inconsequential type comments are my favourite, especially those that use the english language with a flourish that makes my heart pitter-patter with their beautifully created prose.

This is handy for offical documents, though.
posted by liquorice at 10:35 PM on January 10, 2007


Good writers obey conventions of grammar and style. Great writers make new ones.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:38 PM on January 10, 2007 [2 favorites]


No discussion about simplicity, clarity, and compellingity of great writing is complete without mentioning ... THE EYE OF ARGON
posted by wobh at 10:39 PM on January 10, 2007 [2 favorites]


This also randomly reminds me of primary school when we learned to use adjectives or "describing words". We were taught that when writing about something to always use two descriptive words before said object and were given the task to describe the door and the tree. I think mine went something like "I have a big, brown door" and "She was a pretty, tall girl". Aaah, writing at its finest.


"The pages of MetaFilter often compel me to take a sip of my drink before settling down in front of my computer and listening to music. The members amuse me with their tales of their lives."

OR

"The rude, blue pages of MetaFilter often compel me to take a sip of my refreshing, icy drink before settling down in front of my grey, square computer and listening to loud, rock music. The obnoxious, testosterone-filled members amuse me with their sad and sordid tales of their boring and dull lives."

Primary school was fuuuuuuun.
posted by liquorice at 10:40 PM on January 10, 2007


If Powerful Religious Baby followed Samuel Johnson's advice, would he have anything left to post?
posted by metaplectic at 10:42 PM on January 10, 2007


This is a great post - thanks heaps.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 10:49 PM on January 10, 2007


THE EYE OF ARGON

oh ... my ... god ...
posted by pyramid termite at 10:49 PM on January 10, 2007


Ow. I take it all back.

(After reading The Eye Of Argon)
posted by liquorice at 10:53 PM on January 10, 2007


you read all that, liquorice? ... in 13 minutes? ... for shame, sir ... prose like that must be savored ... or appreciated in small doses ... or abandoned before one decides one would rather have one's eyeballs pierced with hot knitting needles than to read another word of something that is strong and smelly enough to knock the average hack harlequin novel writer off of her shitwagon and groan for mercy
posted by pyramid termite at 10:58 PM on January 10, 2007


I'd succumb to watching my parent's sex tapes before I'd ever read that entirely through.
posted by liquorice at 11:02 PM on January 10, 2007


ha! ... i'd ACT in your parents' sex tapes before i'd ever read that entirely through
posted by pyramid termite at 11:04 PM on January 10, 2007


I second that. I managed to get through a page worth, and, sufficiently amused, I closed the tab after reading this flagrant sentence fragment:

A gasping gurgle from the soldier's writhing mouth as he tumbled to the golden sand at his feet, and wormed agonizingly in his death bed.
posted by invitapriore at 11:11 PM on January 10, 2007


Were Orson Welles still alive, I'd pay handsomely to have him read just a single line of Eye of Argon.
posted by kid ichorous at 11:11 PM on January 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


Road signs use clear language; let humans make humans send hot swords through the buttery knots of their Gordian words, amen!

In all honesty, I got this far into your comment and found it too wordy and tiresome to read the rest.
posted by davejay at 11:37 PM on January 10, 2007


"Vamonos, amigos," he whispered, and threw the busted leather flintcraw over the loose weave of the saddleback. And they rode on in the friscalating dusklight.
posted by c:\awesome at 11:50 PM on January 10, 2007


Hmmmm... ponders the works of James Joyce, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson.

Nope. Not buying it.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 12:03 AM on January 11, 2007


Old: Lorem Ipsum
New: Eye of Argon
posted by hal9k at 12:20 AM on January 11, 2007 [4 favorites]


ponders the works of James Joyce, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson.

Admiration for those guys is the source of 85% of bad creative-writing-course fiction. Some times I think that visionaries do more harm than good to an art with all the crap they inspire. Too many people want to be Jimi Hendrix without practicing their scales.
posted by Bookhouse at 12:45 AM on January 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


C:\awesome: Here I come!
posted by headless at 2:07 AM on January 11, 2007


Some of the "compelling" link's advice is bunko, especially his assertion that a structure like "Hopefully, the clock will run out" is ungrammatical.

I'm not sure who told him that, but it might be the same person who told one of my current students that "until/from" is inadmissable.

A pox on the prescriptivist weenies and the nonsense up with which they expect us to put.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 2:51 AM on January 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


From the 'compelling' link in the front page post:
"The Graham Greene quote above is dying for commas, which I'll insert here"
Thank goodness there are gurus on the internet who are able to show us, for no charge, how Greene should have written.
posted by MinPin at 3:50 AM on January 11, 2007


If you're going to go around telling people how to write, best to make sure you know how yourself; from the "compelling" link:

I defer to People Magazine for larding its articles with empty adverbs.

I don't think defer means what he thinks it does.

And what Powerful Religious Baby said about real writing and what Joseph Gurl said about real usage.

Also, The Elements of Style sucks.
posted by languagehat at 5:37 AM on January 11, 2007


A style guide in 14 lines:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentations,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
posted by otio at 6:55 AM on January 11, 2007 [4 favorites]


"To be grammatically and syntactically correct,writing should adhere to the rules of Standard American English, including proper punctuation . . ."

Such as following a comma with a space - or does a transition from italics to plain text somehow make that unnecessary?

"To express a clear pointmeans to convey . . ."
"To be tightly structured,writing should . . ."
"To be substantive,writing should . . ."

et cetera
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:54 AM on January 11, 2007


Actually, Pat Holt from the 'compelling' link is a woman.

I thought her presumption at editing Graham Greene was pretty audacious myself, but I still think she's got a lot of fine advice there.

As for some of our most creative and innovative writers - while I envy those who do use elaborate writing well, Kurt Vonnegut is an author who I've always loved for the fact that he does write in such straightforward language - yet somehow feels totally fresh.
posted by serazin at 7:59 AM on January 11, 2007


Look at you nerds, using semicolons in your posts 'n shit.
posted by loiseau at 8:15 AM on January 11, 2007


Actually, Pat Holt from the 'compelling' link is a woman.

Oops—thanks for the correction!

Kirth Gerson: Gosh, the fact that there was a formatting problem with the webpage certainly sheds light on the advice given therein.
posted by languagehat at 8:16 AM on January 11, 2007


The fact that nobody bothered to correct the "formatting problem" that created a repeated punctuation error in a page emphasizing correct punctuation does, yes.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:19 AM on January 11, 2007


If you think a spacing problem on a webpage is a "punctuation error," I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree.
posted by languagehat at 8:55 AM on January 11, 2007


Ah, here we go.

NASA SP-7010
"Clarity in Technical Reporting," S. Katzoff, 1964.

It remains a solid guide to clipped, terse "Get to the fucking point and tell me what you have to tell me" writing and some decent notes on presenting your work. It's particularly good at describing how effective technical writing (and academic/professional writing in political science) differs from good writing in other settings.

Powerful Religious Baby, you're missing the point. This isn't about writing things that anyone would conceivably read for pleasure, ever. This is about writing that has a job to do, and that exists in pure service to that job. You want descriptions of government regulations to be as clear and simple as possible, because people go to jail when they misread them and break the law. Likewise, editors of journals, at least in political science, put a very high value on brevity since brief articles that just get straight to the point might mean that you can drop your rejection rate from 85% to 70%.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:01 AM on January 11, 2007


Liked the Holt link. Thanks.
posted by squirrel at 9:27 AM on January 11, 2007


Glad that Elmore Leonard's writing tips got posted here. I've always felt that his suggestions were very apt, particularly when applied to mainstream fiction, especially tip #3: never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. I can appreciate this sentiment both as a student of journalism (where the practice is imposed rather than advocated), and as someone who has read the last couple of Harry Potter books, wherein J.K. Rowling has characters "ejaculate" their dialogue. When you've so exhausted your thesaurus that you're having Harry "ejaculate" what he wants for lunch, it's time to reconsider sticking with "said".
posted by Curry at 9:54 AM on January 11, 2007


tip #3: never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

"never" is too strict a rule ... if someone is asking a question, there is nothing wrong with writing "he asked" ... if a guy gets run over by a car, there's nothing wrong with writing, "I feel awful," he moaned ... if people are having a bitter shouting match there's nothing wrong with saying "he yelled"

he also neglect to mention that often you don't need a verb at all to carry dialogue

The phone rang and Nelson picked it up. "Hello?"
"Is this the Smith residence?"
"No, you have the wrong number." He shook his head as he hung up. Just who was this Smith guy, and why did people keep calling for him?
posted by pyramid termite at 10:10 AM on January 11, 2007


neglected ... hmmmph
posted by pyramid termite at 10:11 AM on January 11, 2007


Powerful Religious Baby, you're missing the point. This isn't about writing things that anyone would conceivably read for pleasure, ever.

That point depends on whether you glom onto link #1 or link #3, it seems. The third link is mostly about fiction writing.
posted by furiousthought at 10:13 AM on January 11, 2007


You'd think that I'd have noticed that. Thickie ROU thickie Xenophobe.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:16 AM on January 11, 2007


Pyramid: Obviously "asked" has its place in dialogue and is probably seen as essential for clarity in some situations. The "moaned" example, when applied to the question of carrying dialogue, I think is more indicative of one of my favorite aspects of literature and the act of reading: the role of the reader in creating a unique, personal experience out of what is presented on the printed page. I've probably already muddled what I'm trying to say here, but for me it all comes down to the ability of language to control and manipulate, and the concessions that an author can make to his audience through the use or omission of certain words. If a writer tells me that a character "moaned" something, I am left to visualize the author's conception of the moan, and wonder just what kind of moan it was and where the true source of the moan derives. However, if a character moaned that he "felt awful", I can deduce strictly from what the character says that he probably is not meant to be speaking in a matter-of-fact manner, and that his voice is tinged with pain or at least discomfort. Then I, or the reader, is left to determine just how the character "said" that they felt bad, rather than how they "moaned" it.
posted by Curry at 11:08 AM on January 11, 2007


i think this is one of those things where some writers, mostly amateurs, overuse a technique and others overreact by saying one should "never" do that ... my feeling is that at least 95% of the time, when one bothers to use a verb at all, the verb should be "said"
posted by pyramid termite at 11:20 AM on January 11, 2007


Yes. Slowly but surely, progress is being made in our War on Verbs.
posted by Curry at 11:32 AM on January 11, 2007


I love Elmore Leonard's rules 8 and 9. It ruins a story for me to read endless descriptions of peoples' clothes and houses. I'm reading, rather than watching a movie, because I want to imagine them myself.
posted by found dog one eye at 12:01 PM on January 11, 2007


I've read all of The Eye of Argon and I liked it. It has vim.
posted by wobh at 1:10 PM on January 11, 2007


A brilliant little bit of writing advice [MP3] from Borges, found via this other nice January 10 FPP.
posted by LeLiLo at 2:19 PM on January 11, 2007


Semi-colons are such an after-thought. I don't think i've ever used them unless Word told me too. Baa.
posted by liquorice at 3:11 PM on January 11, 2007


I've read all of The Eye of Argon and I liked it. It has vim.

Yeah, but good writing has emacs.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:51 PM on January 11, 2007


J.K. Rowling only had her characters ejaculating after they hit their teens.

Oh, wait, maybe that was slash fiction?
posted by exlotuseater at 5:54 PM on January 11, 2007


"said" is like punctuation. Invisible, essential. Those who try to dress it up better know what they're doing, or they'll just end up with a semi-colon in a funny hat.
posted by Paragon at 6:38 PM on January 11, 2007


hmmm. That may be my problem.
posted by wobh at 8:11 PM on January 11, 2007


They said "ejaculate"! Haw haw! 'Cause "ejaculate" is all 'bout sperm! Haw haw! 'Specially in 'Merica!

Rowling's language, in this instance, is precise. MeFi user's grasp of it, less so. Try a dictionary, Curry.
posted by vitia at 8:18 PM on January 11, 2007


OK, can I retract that? The prescriptivist comments at the beginning of this post (and, well, in the FPP) led me to cast an ugly eye on some of the finer points made later on. I bashed you inappropriately, Curry.
posted by vitia at 8:26 PM on January 11, 2007


Yeah, but good writing has emacs.

until you get carpal tunnel from all the key combinations
posted by pyramid termite at 8:37 PM on January 11, 2007


This is as good a place as any to re-introduce those old mainstays, the Gricean Maxims. Humour relies for a large part on breaking them, so I've heard.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 5:03 PM on January 13, 2007


For those who hadn't encountered Eye Of Argon before, the best way to truly savor its unique flavor of Awful (offal?) is to read it aloud.

In fact, I have heard that this is a mildly popular game:

1) Collect a group of friends. Arrange them in a circle

2) Procure a copy of Eye Of Argon

3) Proceed to read the thing aloud. Pass the copy to the next person when you have to stop because you're laughing.

That last part is inevitable.
posted by sparkletone at 6:10 PM on January 13, 2007


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