Wishelle Banks, a UNR journalism student of mine in the mid-1980s, reminded me recently of Craig Vetter’s advice on teaching writing. His thesis:
“I can’t teach you to write. Nobody can. Everybody who ever learned this wretched craft taught himself. Few learned PhDs can teach the art. Writing is thinking. To come up with one simple, interesting or funny thought is hard shoveling.”
Mostly true. But good writing teachers can point out bad writing, overwriting and wordiness. For instance, I edited Vetter’s injunction from 150 words to 40 words without losing the essentials of his point.
Besides, could anyone teach Proust or Faulkner the art of writing?
As Frenchman Buffon put it in the 18th century, “Le style est l’homme” (Style is the man.) Writers have individual ways of expressing themselves.
For most people, the art of writing is best practiced by using short, simple, declarative sentences.
It’s an art academics seldom learn. Their writing is marked by 70-word sentences crammed with entangling asides and phrases, flowery language and multi-syllabic words. They write epistemological rather than plain knowing.
Example of academic-ese:
This 69-word beginning of a Thomas Mitchell column in the Sparks Tribune, March 7:
“President Trump this past week signed an executive order telling the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to review the so-called waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule created under the Obama administration, which attempted to usurp every stream, ditch, wetland or muddy hoof print that might eventually spill a few drops of water into any rivulet that might occasionally be navigable with an inner tube.”
Chris Murray, sports editor of the Reno Gazette-Journal, is one the best writers in the country. But even he, like Homer, nods. He needs editing.
Here is Murray’s recent lead about the UNR football team: “The Wolf Pack is headed to Manhattan—the one in Kansas, not the one in New York.” A perfect lead is sullied by the phrase “not the one in New York.” Readers do not need to be told there is a Manhattan in New York.
CLICHE OF THE DAY
An Australian bird book published recently has a terrible cliché in the title: “How They Changed the World.” The exotic Aussie birds did not change the world. Yet I don’t know how often I’ve seen in books or articles some happening called “world-changing.”
Nothing changes the world. It was the observers and commentators’ views that pronounced them world-changing.
Darwin didn’t change the world, as many writers proclaim. He just reported his observations about the evolution of species.
His 1859 book, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life,” was a revolutionary one. It changed people’s thinking about God, religion and science. (See DVD, “Inherit the Wind.” It’s an excellent account of the passionate and historic debate between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925.)
Darwin’s book did not change the world but became the foundation of evolutionary biology.
Other annoying clichés abound:
• The Classic Courses offers one DVD to “change the way you listen to music.”
• The Foundation for International Community Assistance promises that a small loan is a “game changer.”
• Iconic is the most often used cliché in writing. The Great Courses offers a silly one: “Cook Iconic Mediterranean Dishes.”
• Another word regularly produced in the cliché factory is “famously.” A New York Times retrospective book review of “Casablanca” (March 5) has the protagonist Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) declaring “famously” that he “sticks his neck out for nobody.”
• Societal or cultural shift is a frequent cliché. The Times reported (Feb. 1) that women in the Turkish armed forces, in a “cultural shift” or “a societal shift,” are given the right to wear Islamic head scarves.
• Here’s another: “under the radar” as in “under-the-radar decisions.” That’s a lazy writer’s cliché for overlooked.
• “Of course” is probably the worst cliché of all. It is vastly overused and almost always unnecessary in writing.
• Another annoying cliché occurs when writers interrupt the flow of their prose with the worthless “you know.”
• Cliché masters write “double down” instead of using plain talk: more zealous pursuit of a goal.
• Still others write “double bind” (the dilemma of facing two undesirable actions). Not many readers know what that is. Use plain talk.
Other clichés: “Welcome to the Digital Age”…“world class”…“106 pounds soaking wet”…“dropping like flies”…“biting the dust”… interpolations into writing: “ahem, um, er”…“ somewhat” abused.
More: “a new norm”…“cognitive dissonance”…“more Catholic than the pope”…“counter-productive”… “counter-intuitive”…“hit the wall”…“existential”…“trope”…“meme”…“fuzzy math”…“jaw dropping”… “mind-blowing”…“at the end of the day”…“hot-button issue”…“been there, done that”…“push back”… “push comes to shove”…“bottom line”…“pro-active”…“gut check”…“wash down” (with wine)…“at the drop of a hat.”
Jake Highton is an emeritus journalism professor from the University of Nevada, Reno. (firstname.lastname@example.org)