plain English

Think before you write

“Short words are best, and old words, when short, are best of all.” Thus, quoting Winston Churchill, began an editorial in The Economist that consisted entirely of one-syllable words. It went on:

“AND, not for the first time, he was right: short words are best. Plain they may be, but that is their strength. They are clear, sharp and to the point. You can get your tongue round them. You can spell them. Eye, brain and mouth work as one to greet them as friends, not foes. For that is what they are.”

The passage was written by the editor of The Economist’s own style book, which itself begins very simply: “Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. So think what you want to say, then say it as simply as possible.”

I certainly agree that you should think through what you want to say before saying it. (If I disagreed publicly, I would probably have to start clearing my desk.) But clear writing does not necessarily follow from clear thought. The fact is that writing is difficult. Some of the smartest people I know are not very good writers; either their mechanics and style are underdeveloped, because they’re unused to writing, or they’re overdeveloped, writing too ripely after having read too many other writers’ over-ripe style. I’m not even sure that writing is even teachable, past a certain point; anyone can be taught to plonk through basic tunes on a piano, but it takes talent to make the thing sing. Life’s like that, and to say that bad writers should just memorise a few dictates in order to become good ones ignores the fact that the best they might do is become less bad.

So how do journalists do, as writers of “plain English”? In my self-serving opinion, I think they get a rather bad rap: it’s not easy writing as quickly as journalists must usually do. Just getting the facts across might seem easy to the outsider, but it is anything but. By and large, the fact that your newspaper is generally informative is thanks to the hard work of a lot of half-decent writers and editors putting in long hours for modest pay.

That said, how could they do better? I’ll focus on the use of metaphorical language. There are three ways to use a metaphor to get ideas across, and two of them are bad. One is to use tired metaphors, the “dying” but not yet dead ones that Orwell so disliked: prices “spike”, markets “soar” or “tumble”, angry people “fume”, people can do nothing but “bask” in admiration, and so on. The fingers almost seem to type these words without interference from the brain. Fortunately for readers, though – while we’re on the subject of plain language – such language is so conventional that it’s comfortable, like a predictable movie.

The second thing one can do with metaphor is try too hard. I dinged David Corn for doing this, counting eight different confusing metaphors for the American presidential candidate Newt Gingrich as a “destroyer”: Mr Corn had him, alternately, as a barbarian, suicide bomber, scorched-earth general, nuclear weapon, bomb-thrower, poisoner and more. And of course Tom Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, is the master of the over-eager metaphor, as the whole internet seems to have figured out. Trying too hard is actually worse than not trying hard enough, for the reader trying to understand you.

The best metaphors are simple, clear, memorable and quite often short. Orwell wrote about those “who come flocking toward the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat.” Whoa! I first read those words some 13 years ago, in graduate school, and I still remember where I was (in the basement kitchen of a student house in Oxford). And remember, Orwell may be known as a novelist and critic, but he considered himself a journalist and essayist.

Sadly, his kind is rare. He wrote at the slower pace of his day; now, journalists are under pressure to produce ever more – written pieces, tweets, multimedia features, blog posts and the lot – and often under the kind of time pressure that doesn’t allow for careful crafting. “Plain language” is a misleading moniker: it’s deceptively difficult. It’s worth the effort, though.

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Robert Lane Greene


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