Monday, April 30, 2007

Writing for Style: Be Specific

Specific language makes an impact far greater than the shadowy double-speak that embarrasses many academics and bureaucracies.

Not “a period of unfavourable weather” but “it rained every day for a week.”

Not “he showed satisfaction as he realised his market gains” but “he grinned as he sold the stock for a profit.”

George Orwell showed the difference best when he took Ecclesiastes 9:11 from the King James version of the Bible and drained it of its blood:

“Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must inevitably be taken into account.”

You probably remember parts, or all, of the original:

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

If you’re having trouble writing directly and concretely, lean back in your chair and ask yourself, “What am I trying to say?” Your first answer is probably the way you should write it.

Call a one-person earth-moving implement a spade.
Let’s face it. Vitally challenged or chronologically stunted is still dead.

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