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I’m that strange breed of engineer that likes words and likes writing. I relish the exercise of formulating a thought and laboring to fashion it in a manner that makes a concept accessible to others. I wrote poetry when I was young, Bible studies in my 20’s, and a wide variety of technical and policy documentation throughout my career. Some years ago, I even started blogging out of an innate need to write, for myself and anyone willing to suffer as my audience. Of course, practical considerations (e.g. life) have relegated this craft to my “I’ll get back to it someday” bin of unfulfilled wishes. But I digress.
Writing creatively and succinctly was never really a focus during my student years. While I believe I am suitably proficient in the use of language and vocabulary, I find that getting beyond words as commodity to words as art to be a difficult chasm to span in my compositions. Bridging the gap between formulations that are essentially disposable to those that weave vibrant tapestries of expression is no small feat, and frequently seems beyond my humble capabilities. Yet, I still have aspirations. So, when I come across what I consider sound writing advice, I hold onto it for review. Such it is with a letter that C.S Lewis once wrote to a young fan, that includes some interesting suggestions for writers.
1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
I admit to some mixed feelings on the above, and I recognize that I’m frequently guilty of some of what he suggests are errors. As for the first item, I have no issue. In fact, I could argue that I’m too obsessed with being understood. It is one thing to put together language and words in order to be clear. It is another thing to go on and on, restating the same argument, making a broad and detailed case for the sole purpose of not being misunderstood. Of course, you must then balance this against the requirement for brevity, the so-called economy of words. Not my strong suit, as you can undoubtedly tell. (You can tell, right? If not, I can go on and explain it further).
His second recommendation simply pains me. While his example is quite clear and apt (who “implements” promises, anyway?), I admit to the joy of an extended vocabulary. There are so many wonderful words that would fail to see the light of day if we limited ourselves to the lowest common denominator in our word choice. I suppose it depends in part upon the purpose and the audience of the written material.
With number three, I’m in full agreement. I remember school days in which I would try to assemble such constructions of abstraction, mostly in a silly attempt to impress my instructors with the use of “bigger words.” However, I believe there is a natural tension here, as teachers often encourage such constructions to encourage the use of a broader vocabulary. You know, the whole “use this word in a sentence” shtick.
The fourth is a matter of art as much a matter of construction. Some writers simply have that gift to make the reader emotionally connect to their material. In visual arts, including video, the artist can make creative use of color and music to create the desired mood or response in the audience. With the written word, I’m not so certain there is such a clear-cut, manipulative formula. It is all in how you tell the story, or whether it is a good story told well. Commodity vs. art. The utility vs. the music of the written word.
Finally, a lesson in the proper use of hyperbole. If you use language at the extreme, then all that is left is absurdity. (Clearly, a lesson lost on many politicians and pundits alike). The avoidance of unnecessary exaggeration is good advice, except when used as a tool to further the story or argument in a desirable way. But it is a tool that should be used sparingly – if you are telling a tale or using it to illustrate a point. Exaggeration or hyperbole presented as fact lowers the value of the writing, and of the writer.
In the end, the goal is to inform or to entertain, and sometimes both. But to do it well, both the message and the mechanics matter, a magical mix of the commodity and art of words to produce something of value, powerful in its own way. Hard to do, but awesome when accomplished.
No representation is made that the quality of this advice is of greater value than the quality of advice offered by any other offeror of advice. Um. Yeah.