Some sentences, read aloud, are jawbreakers. Others are mind-benders. Consider this combination jawbreaker/mind-bender:
"The board gave a third reading to a Foothills Boulevard Landfill gas emission reduction credits transfer contract authorization law."
Please … please read that aloud. Starting with "Foothills," we have to slog through 11 nouns in a row. And at the end, we have no idea where we are.
Get out your machete.
Wait, there's an easier path to clarity.
That jawbreaker/mind-bender, from the Prince George Citizen newspaper in British Columbia, was reprinted in the New Yorker magazine, which loves to mock poorly worded communications.
How did all those nouns get stacked up? No one in the history of humankind has ever spoken such a sentence.
But the writer, immersed in issues facing the zoning board, compressed them all into a seemingly efficient bundle that anyone on the board — similarly at home in a jargon jungle — would instantly understand.
But not the public. The beleaguered public.
So, how do you fix the problem? Just start at the end of the sentence and work toward the front, to wit: "The board gave a third reading to a bylaw authorizing a contract that would transfer credits for the reduction of gas emissions at the Foothills Boulevard Landfill."
This is a perfect example of the value of reading your writing aloud to test if it sounds like a human utterance.
Not all "writing" succeeds in communicating.
The late writer Wendell Johnson, a University of Iowa professor, stated a great truth: "You can't write writing."
Too many students in composition classes recoil from the training and wind up afraid to write anything. But their jobs require them to write, so they try to survive by writing what they think is "writing." Instead of writing the way people talk.
When I work with college students who strive to write clearly I offer this advice: "When you say to your roommate, 'You'll never guess what happened to me today,' and she says, 'Tell me,' you have no trouble telling her. So … write it that way."
If only some academic bureaucrats could have done that, they would have spared us this next horror, a treatise on how to improve teaching. I encourage patience as you slog:
"Operationally, teaching effectiveness is measured by assessing the levels of agreement between the perceptions of instructors and students on the rated ability of specific instructional behavior attributes which were employed during course instruction.
"Due to the fact that instructors come from diverse backgrounds and occupy different positions within a given university, both individual and organizational based factors may contribute to the variance in levels of agreement between perceptions."
It's enough to drive you back to that Foothills Boulevard Landfill.
If you want to write clearly, keep it simple.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson said it best:
"I just stop trying to sound important. I just say it. The simpler you say it, the more eloquent it is."
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.