The Unpatented Secret to Writing Clearly and Well

13 Sep

Many years ago, I was watching something Brit on PBS. I remember one line in particular: “Drive quickly. I don’t care about the speed limit.” It struck me as a model of simplicity and clarity and strength. But it could have been any sentence in just about any show. It made me realize that what made British actors always sound so smart, and so credible was that their scripts used simple words. I began to observe British pols, as found that they did the same thing. Simple words for everything. They even had the good sense to do it when they were lying their black hearts out.

By contrast, when American political and military pols lie, they often tend to take refuge in thickets of polysyllables (see the public records of the Nixon administration for examples), on the theory that it makes them sound smarter and therefore more credible: “Protective reaction strike.” only three words long, but two of them are latinate, and only one is from old English. And it’s a lie. ¬†It means “Attacking first.”

The odd thing about English is that it’s really two languages, Anglo-Saxon and Norman French. After 1066 and all that, when the Normans managed to impose themselves on the ancient kingdom of the English, the two peoples hated each other, but they still had to get things done. They developed a pidgin (the word means “business”) language to do them in. From that time to this, there are two streams of words in our language, an upper-crust latiny sort of stream and a working class Germanic stream of strong nouns and muscular verbs. They are both wonderful tools for a writer. But the second stream is the short road to what you want to say nearly every time.

I don’t suggest that we should dumb down our writing. Word choice, sentence structure, the rhythm of our sentences, can convey any mood or nuance we want, something our poets have been proving for centuries. In fact, it seems to me that bad writing is more a result of flat sentences than of poor word choices. Think about the bad books you’ve read. Didn’t every sentence seem to be like every other sentence?

So, take your cue from the hard-handed old pig farmers who gave us so much. Keeps your words simple, as much as you can. Then use them to soar.



2 Responses to “The Unpatented Secret to Writing Clearly and Well”

  1. Neeks September 13, 2011 at 7:02 pm #

    Very good advice, I need to check back over my work…thanks!

    • douglasrees September 14, 2011 at 5:31 am #

      Thanks very much. I hope it helps you as much as it’s helped me.

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