Deborah Bowman argues quite sensibly against proofreading one’s own work because we tend to ignore the typos, for example. Another writer commented on the all-too-frequent writer’s curse, lack of inspiration. Those are two major issues for all writers. Of course, when you are employed as a professional writer, you cannot wait, twiddling your typing thumbs, as it were, until the light bulb clicks on. Quite often, especially if you are a technical writer, for example, you just jot an outline, sketching out the parameters of the project and hunker down to write the thing. Occasionally, inspiration may arrive with an organizational plan or wonderful opening line. More often, though, no matter what type of prose I am working on, I have found that I have had to rewrite the opening paragraph again and again until I have a hook to grab the reader. Too many writers opt for the grade-school approach: “I’m going to tell you about this,” followed by three to five unremarkable paragraphs and then they reiterate the first paragraph. blecch!
You begin with an idea that you think will spark a readable article or story or whatever. Sometimes, your great idea has a mind of its own and takes you on a roller coaster ride. If you’re writing fiction or poetry, that’s fine, but if you’re writing technical articles or a business plan, for instance, not so good. Still, whether your chosen field is creative or functional writing, a cogent idea and some notion of organization will generally work for you. A problem arises when you must share your work with others.
That is one of the many reasons I have never liked writing with a team. I’m not antisocial, but writing by committee generally yields plodding prose written to the lowest common denominator–these days, that means someone reading at a 5th grade level.
Of course, experts tell you to write at a high-school level for the general reading public, and that was valid until about 20 years ago, when reading activities (and reading levels) plummeted. Now, with far too many distractions—Oh, look! A shiny object!–we cannot rely on that biscuit. I was taught and still believe that we should expect the best of readers and rather than talk down to them, we should lift them up to our level of understanding.
I think it was Einstein who said that any scientist who couldn’t explain his theories in ordinary language so that the average person could understand it was a fraud.
That doesn’t mean we must follow the old primers–”See John. See the ball. See John catch the ball.” Rather, we should use 5-cent words rather than $5 words, when possible.
Which is better?
*A rare, comic moment in The Sun Also Rises occurs when a character begins to employ “utilize” in nearly every instance where “use” would be preferable. The other characters, mocking his naiveté, misuse it deliberately: “I think I could utilize that wine,” and so on. I still laugh at that section when I reread Hemingway’s best novel because it reminds me of so many college administrators who discovered a “new” word borrowed from someone smarter and they would then use and abuse the word ad absurd um. One college president “discovered” his new buzz word over the summer–“band width”–and like Cohen in The Sun Also Rises, he began utilizing it all over the place. In describing our faculty for our accreditation study, he paid us his highest compliment when he stated that our faculty had broad band width. I took exception to this at our faculty meeting and he failed to recognize that he had not grasped the concept and had misstated his intentions merely to look good (in his eyes) on paper.
Likewise, I always knew when one of my students had bought or been given a thesaurus, because their writing became more stilted and less genuine. Don’t get me wrong, I love the thesaurus; it’s one of my favorite dinosaurs. They can create problems for new writers, though, who seek to impress the reader with their new-found vocabulary. This is why everyone should have and use a good dictionary, for it enables you to double-check the meaning, tone, and nuance of a word found in the thesaurus.
“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.” –Mark Twain
The second tool is anyone objective who can read your work and offer cogent comments. I say “objective” for good reason. Your family and friends may think you’re a genius and so everything you write, they think, is a gem. You need someone outside that zone to help you view your work from a reader’s perspective, to see the gob of coal you have that can be polished into a diamond. Sharing your work, especially in its raw state, is daunting, but it is a discipline you must hone. Sentences and thoughts that seem profound to you may seem clichéd or incomprehensible to others. Then, too, if an objective reader sees something fine and compliments you, s/he has made your day! We all need such encouragement.
At a faculty and staff meeting to
discuss argue over rough drafts of our accreditation self-study, each group presented the chapter they had written and the rest of us would ask questions, suggest corrections or additions, and the ensuing melée was typical of writing by committee and group think. I am not perfect but I am a perfectionist, so everything I read becomes an editing assignment. The school accountant for reasons unfathomable wrote the chapter on faculty. His proudest moment, speaking at a faculty meeting, was perhaps ruined when I tactfully explained that he could not say that we had a “virile” faculty. I jokingly indicated that those of us without the Y-chromosome might be offended, so he rustled some papers, eventually offering a better word for us: “virulent.” Silent scream.
A third option, if you are proofing your own work, is to read it out loud, to see if it flows or stumbles. Is it truly mellifluous prose or moldy bread? Did you leave out a word or leave one in that’s unnecessary? Does it sound right? If you can’t read your own work out loud, how can you expect a reader to comprehend and/or appreciate it? Sometimes, reading aloud, a word may not feel right, so you scurry to dictionary and thesaurus searching out a better one. No one has ever revised anything and made it worse. Despite scant anecdotal evidence, I stand by that last. The best little book to improve your writing style is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (NY: Macmillan). They have added new authors and perhaps improved it, but I’m still using my 1979 edition.
©2015 Linda L Labin, PhD