At the start of each writing-intensive journalism course I’ve been teaching at Colorado College for the past 23 years, I ask my students to e-mail me a personal letter focusing on a significant impact on their lives.
They reply to the same kind of letter I have sent them, and it’s a joy to read each one, not only because they are letting me get to know them, but also because their writing is simple, conversational and clear.
When they start submitting writing assignments in the course, though, something changes for many students. They lapse into trying to “write.”
Instead of communicating clearly, the way they would tell a story to a friend, they often produce stilted language that repels a reader.
A few students do have the gift of graceful expression, and their writing, by comparison, produces waves of pleasure.
Not so for others, who write things like: “Her results were reflective of her sour attitude.”
Who talks that way?
Far better to write: “Her results reflected her sour attitude.”
In the word “reflected,” we have a hard, action verb; in the word “were” we have the weakest verb in the language.
And in using “reflected,” we economize by replacing three words with one.
An old joke among writers: “He never uses one word where 11 will do.”
Besides, the phrase “were reflective of” sounds fussy, and it draws uncomfortable attention.
Another common annoyance in writing, not only by young students, but also by many adults — the form “there are”:
“There are some managers who encourage initiative.”
To achieve economy and directness — and to dump that weak verb “are” — make it, “Some managers encourage initiative.”
A reader of this column who edits a trade magazine that solicits articles from workers in its industry, complains that their writing throws cramps into her mind.
She says they lard their writing with institutional jargon, like the word utilize, instead of use.
Worse examples: resystematize, transparentize, essentialize, rightsize, dichotomize.
Do the “ize” have it?
Madam Editor says: “Nay!”
Twin Cities writing coach Gary Gilson, winner of an Emmy Award, teaches journalism at Colorado College. He can be reached through www.writebetterwithgary.com.