Tagged: Writing Craft

Learning Style and Clarity from a (Hilarious) Ten-Year-Old

gowersThe Complete Plain Words (1954) is a classic book on writing by Sir Ernest Gowers, an accomplished civil servant, aimed at curing the British Civil Service of its habit of writing in officialese rather than in plain English. Though written for civil servants, it soon became a hit with the general public and has not been out of print since.

In it Gowers writes, “The secret to style is to have something to say and to say it as clearly as you can.” He then asks why it is that adults are so prone to write in a complicated rather than simple way, the way children do. To illustrate this, Gowers offers an example of clear writing from a ten-year-old that’s not only impressive for its clarity but also hilarious:

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“Why do so many writers prefer complexity to simplicity? Officials are far from being the only offenders. It seems to be a morbid condition contracted in early manhood. Children show no signs of it. Here, for example, is the response of a child of ten to an invitation to write an essay on a bird and a beast:

‘The bird that I am going to write about is the owl. The owl cannot see at all by day and at night is as blind as a bat.
‘I do not know much about the owl, so I will go on to the beast which I am going to choose. It is the cow. The cow is a mammal. It has six sides – right, left, an upper and below. At the back it has a tail on which hangs a brush. With this it sends the flies away so that they do not fall into the milk. The head is for the purpose of growing horns and so that the mouth is to moo with. Under the cow hangs the milk. It is arranged for milking. When people milk, the milk comes and there is never an end to the supply. How the cow does it I have not yet realised, but it makes more and more. The cow has a fine sense of smell; one can smell it far away. This is the reason for the fresh air in the country.
‘The man cow is call an ox. It is not a mammal. The cow does not each much, but what it eats it eats twice, so that it gets enough. When it is hungry it moos, and when it says nothing it is because its inside is all full up with grass'” (39).
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Writing Sentences, Short and Long

toolsEvery couple of months or so I read a book to help me improve my writing, and now I’m reading Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (Little, Brown, 2008). I’ve only read about four or five books on the craft of writing, and this is my favorite (with William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well close behind; but for a truly fun read on writing “great sentences,” check out Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One). Clark’s guide is entertaining, full of common sense, and rich in practical tips that can take your writing to the next level.

I wanted to share this passage from his chapter showing how sentence length helps set the pace for the reader. He offers this delightfully brilliant example from the book 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals – sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

“So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music (91).”

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NOTE: Did you notice how the first 9 sentences of this passage are all five-word sentences? That’s right. Read it again and enjoy.