Graduation season reminds me of a conversation a professor friend of mine had with a student about to receive his diploma and look for his first job.
The professor said, “You’re a bright guy, Jim, but you really need to improve your writing. And quickly.”
“I don’t need to worry about writing,” Jim said. “I’m going into public relations.”
“And what do you think you will be doing in public relations?”
Jim had a quick answer: “I’ll be relating … to the public.”
“No, you won’t. You’ll be grinding out press releases, and if you don’t write them well you’ll be out on your behind before you know it.”
A bank executive told me he spends so much time correcting writing errors by his staff that it keeps him from doing critical things his job requires.
Some of the best advice I ever heard on writing well came from Marcus Quintilianus, a Roman who lived from 35 A.D. to 100 A.D.:
“We should write, not so that it is possible to understand us, but so that it is impossible to misunderstand us.”
A lofty standard, and an indispensable one.
That’s what clear communication is all about. Precision and simplicity lead to clarity. If we do not write clearly, our reader may misunderstand us and take action that undermines our enterprise.
A college teacher advised me to read everything by a writer whose work I loved, to get inside that writer’s head. I chose Joseph Conrad, one of the greatest writers in the English language, even though Polish was his native tongue.
Not only that, Conrad, for many years a merchant seaman, gave up shipboard life and became a full-time writer only in his late 30s.
Of all the great advice that superb writers have offered, Conrad’s credo, to me, stands tallest:
“My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything.”
Almost 2,000 years passed between Quintilianus and Conrad, and if you hew to fundamental standards of simplicity and clarity, nothing has changed.
Being a brilliant thinker — William F. Buckley Jr. for example — is no guarantee of producing simple, clear writing. Buckley populated his essays with words like these — eleemosynary, epicene, periphrastic — that readers had to look up. That interrupted the flow for them, and many would abandon his essay and miss out on his provocative thinking.
Someone told me what F. Scott Fitzgerald said about Ernest Hemingway’s writing:
“Hemingway does not drive you to the dictionary.”
In a previous column I cited what I consider the worst sentence ever: “Refreshments were served, and a good time was had by all.”
Here’s my choice for the best: the last line below, from the song “Say It Simple:”
“Say it simple, so I can understand, use all the easy words at your command. Don’t tell lies, I never cared for fiction, talk real clear, don’t want no friction with your diction.”
Ain’t language fun?
Gary Gilson, a Twin Cities writing coach and five-time Emmy Award winner in public television, has taught writing-intensive journalism courses at Colorado College for 22 years. Contact him through www.writebetterwithgary.com.