July 10, 2012

"[W]rite as simply and plainly as possible and it's more likely you'll be thought of as intelligent."

"Anything that makes a text hard to read and understand, such as unnecessarily long words or complicated fonts, will lower readers' evaluations of the text and its author... The continuing popularity amongst students of using big words and attractive font styles may be due to the fact that they may not realize these techniques could backfire...."

Okay, but there's one big problem: If you make it really clear, people can see what you're saying, and if the substance is bad, you'll be caught. Which is great. Even better: In the process of making yourself clear, you may see what's bad and fix it, or — simplicity par excellence — refrain from publishing anything. That doesn't work for students who must hand something in, but it's professors who really annoy me.

83 comments:

Revenant said...

My advice to college students: if you don't know what you're talking about, using flowery language will just force the TA to work harder to confirm his suspicion that you don't know what you're talking about. Which means he or she will be that much more irritated with you when deciding if what you wrote is worth partial credit.

Get to the point as quickly as possible. The TA has about a jillion papers to read and no actual desire to read any of them. Brevity and clarity earn you major brownie points.

Synova said...

Oh, you should never mess with font styles.

Bad. Bad. Bad.

Unless you're committing signage, fonts should be invisible, and by invisible I mean ordinary traditional serif text. Proportional or non-proportional isn't so critical but for the love of gawd skip the Revolution Gothic and Mobile Oil script.

rhhardin said...

Anything that makes a text hard to read and understand, such as unnecessarily long words or complicated fonts, will lower readers' evaluations of the text and its author

Find the subject.

Synova said...

"Find the subject."

Anything/will.

I think.

"Will lower" for the verb? "Anything" is a crappy subject, but I don't know what else it will be. It's not an implied "You" or something like that.

It's sort of ironic in context.

Joe Schmoe said...

Clearly John Kerry never heeded this advice.

I always questioned the real intelligence of supposedly-smart people who obfuscate when writing or orating. If you're so smart, can't you figure out how to communicate clearly? Ergo, either not so smart, or smart but very lazy. In Kerry's case, it could go either way, and he has the built-in advantage of never having to change. He doesn't have to worry about money, thanks to his wife, and he never has to worry about getting elected, thanks to the brain-dead MA electorate.

Mitt would do well to heed this advice in the coming months!

Milwaukee said...

Ann, you, a law professor spewing common sense like this? I have seen studies indicating that lawyers and judges preferred to use language making the law and their decisions and brief harder for non-lawyers to understand and respond to. Something about protecting the guild.

ndspinelli said...

Your second paragraph could be a self parody, but I know it's not.

edutcher said...

Frederic Remington said it about painting, but it applies here, "The most work you do is what you take away".

Paddy O said...

"Whoever thinks deeply can write clearly."

-Jürgen Moltmann
Professor Emeritus of Theology
University of Tübingen

Greg Hlatky said...

"By keeping carefully to the real subject... and by resisting giving himself a boost on the side, the average writer can greatly simplify his labors. As a rule he knows what he wants to say, and once he is reconciled simply to saying it without wondering how it sounds, or whether the reader is going to form a high opinion of him, he will find that he is no longer at a loss for words or tangled up in relative clauses. Plain facts practically write themselves. After he has put the plain facts down in words he is used to using... he can send them off with sober confidence. The reader, astounded to get something sensible, simple, and short, may even conclude that the writer must be quite a smart guy." - James Gould Cozzens

ndspinelli said...

I NEVER had a female teacher who liked Hemingway. I'm sure there are some, but I never had one.

Synova said...

I've never read Hemingway.

I do have a micro-press romance I bought from a lady I know whose prose is shockingly spare.

At first you think, doesn't she know how to write?

And then you realize that you could never do as well. There's no style, only substance. There's no manipulation in the prose itself, only the story.

Scott said...

If you want to give a paragraph more punch, pull out all the adjectives and adverbs you can. Let your nouns and verbs stand naked. They will shout for your attention.

Birches said...

Somebody please send this article to my sister in law, an aspiring writer.

Synova said...

My personal literary/language pet peeve, top of the list, is the phrase "some kind of"...

NEVER write those words. Just don't.

They're worse than an adjective or an adverb. They convey NO information.

"He had come kind of paint covering his face..."

"She saw some kind of an altercation..."

OMG! Just don't!

He had paint on his face. You either know what kind of paint it was or you don't.

She saw an altercation. Period. Full stop.

ARARGGGGGHHHH!

Bob Ellison said...

"Thus", I hate.

Bob Ellison said...

The point of good writing and good argument, truth be told, is difficult to grasp. At the end of the day, words matter. A lot. More than you think. The fact of the matter is, is, words should be used only insofar as they express something that matters.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Synova,

Re: fonts, I don't think serif/sans-serif is the divider. This site is in a sans-serif font, and it's basically "invisible" to me. Courier would irritate me. Helvetica and its clones wouldn't, unless some idiot used the heavier weights in an effort to look authoritative.

(I used Garamond until we got a good version of Bembo. My husband merged it with the old-style figures from the expert set, for something he named Bimbo. That's the only concession to font-geekness I still make these days. I like me some old-style figures.)

As for flowery writing, it's nearly always a mistake. We all have our literary vices, though. Mine's long sentences, heavily punctuated. Semicolons our specialty!

rhhardin,

I don't know what you're talking about. That sentence has a perfectly clear subject, which is "anything."

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Bob Ellison,

"Thus", I hate.

But there's a case in which every alternative takes up more space. (Excepting "ergo," but somehow I don't think you're plugging for "ergo.")

I mean, what have we got? "Therefore" is the straightforward choice. "In consequence" (or "consequently")? "As a result"? "It follows that"?

Jason (the commenter) said...

College students are just trying to reassure their parents all the money they spent on tuition wasn't thrown away. It's not like they can do it with employment anymore.

chickelit said...

You must be some kinda professional writer, Synova. Not sure which kind. :)

chickelit said...

My pet peeves in writing are all the mistakes I make.

Lem said...

... and if the substance is bad, you'll be caught. Which is great.

As professor Turley's court packing scheme.

Bob Ellison said...

Michelle Dulak Thomson, you raise important points. They are to be regarded. I will get back to you on them, and in point of fact, your discussion will be raised to a satellite level.

Joe said...

This advice has a big problem: it really pisses off some people, especially managers. I've discovered that managers and ass kissers don't like underlings/colleagues getting straight to the point.

Not using vague statements and obfuscating terms makes it very difficult for them to lie through their teeth to those above them or to act like they are productive.

Penny said...

Forrest Gump was a movie, folks.

Dr Weevil said...

Long before Moltmann and Cozzens, Cato the Elder illustrated the ideal by putting it in four words and eight syllables: rem tene, verba sequentur, "keep to the subject [literally, 'hold the thing'], the words will follow".

Penny said...

And I'm not gonna Gump...yet.

Penny said...

Course talking to myself has been a life long passion.

So...

Don't judge your Gumping by me!

jvermeer51 said...

The Gettysburg address was less than 300 words, our Constitution is the shortest in the world (the EU's is several hundred pages. But not to worry; one of the authors said reading it is not necessary, just vote yes) and the core of the Declaration of Independence is three sentences. One of Ayn Rand's themes was that authoritarian states use language not to facilitate communication but to impede it.

elkh1 said...

"Anything that makes a text hard to read and understand, such as unnecessarily long words or complicated fonts," is called ass-covering.

Jose_K said...

As a left winger in LA said. if we can not be deep at least let be obscure

Jose_K said...

the good, if brief, twice good.

Lo bueno, si breve, dos ves bueno.
Gracian

Synova said...

"We all have our literary vices, though. Mine's long sentences, heavily punctuated. Semicolons our specialty!"

I don't remember when it happened but one day I'd had enough of the sorts of convoluted sentences that allowed me to avoid semi-colons.

It wasn't a gradual adaptation. I'd simply had enough of my own timidity and decided not to submit to fear any longer.

Carnifex said...

You've all clearly missed the memo by the Dread Traitor Roberts. What you write or say no longer has any standing, it is what we believe you meant to say or write that has any intrinsic merit. But I'm just rube, not at all nuanced in conlaw.

PS.

Go to come home from the hospital today! Had a bowel movement for the first time in 5 days! Still alotta pain. though. Thanx for everyones good wishes, and if you wished me dead, Sorry. :-)

Penny said...

Oooh boy...

I think Synova just said she wasn't gonna give up her "turtlenecks" just yet?

O Ritmo Segundo said...

To value the perception of intelligence over intelligence itself is the dumbest fucking thing I've ever heard of.

O Ritmo Segundo said...

Shorter post title: "How to get dumb people to think you're smart."

Greg Hlatky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greg Hlatky said...

To value the perception of intelligence over intelligence itself is the dumbest fucking thing I've ever heard of.

How else did Obama get elected? His impressive list of accomplishments as a legal scholar, state senator and US senator?

leslyn said...

Michelle Dulak Thomson said... "Bob Ellison, "Thus", I hate."

But there's a case in which every alternative takes up more space. (Excepting "ergo," but somehow I don't think you're plugging for "ergo.") I mean, what have we got? "Therefore" is the straightforward choice. "In consequence" (or "consequently")? "As a result"? "It follows that"?

"So."

Penny said...

My guess is Althouse will turn up the thermostat.

...It's summer!

Needs to be HOT.

Penny said...

Leslyn going with the quick jab.

Penny said...

No semicolons there!

O Ritmo Segundo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
O Ritmo Segundo said...

Greg Hlatky apparently values being a political whore moreso than actually, successfully standing up for and intelligently articulating what you believe.

As a state senator, Obama led bipartisan passage of a bill to mandate videotaping of homicide investigations. He was credited by police organizations for his ability to work with them to enact death penalty reform. You know, small stuff.

But instead, perhaps he should have just been like the typical Republiqueen whore and done whatever the people with the most money paid him to do, regardless of what would have been good for his constituents. In Greg Hlatky's mind.

leslyn said...

The quoted text has a Fog Index of 14.4. That's worse than I thought. For general reading, a Fog Index over 12 means the reader is "fogged in." They either don't understand what's written or don't care.

9 is a very readable level. Most popular magazines and books are written at a Fog Index of 7 to 9.

Make sentences shorter. Use simple words. Avoid using words of 3 or more syllables.

That just had a Fog Index of 5.6.

leslyn said...

O Ritmo's was written at 13.6.

Dr Weevil said...

"As a state senator, Obama led bipartisan passage of a bill to mandate videotaping of homicide investigations" - what a titanic and earthshaking accomplishment! Ritmo doesn't tell us that it passed 35-0, which could be taken to prove how amazingly persuasive Obama was, or could be taken as showing that it was an obviously good idea that no reasonable person could possibly object to. Was it really difficult to convince the police that it was a good idea? I suspect that the actual number of Illinois suspects who had confessions beaten out of them was far smaller than the number who said after they had confessed that they had been beaten, and that the tapes did more to protect the police than to protect suspects.

Chip S. said...

See leslyn write. Leslyn writes well. Her Fog Index is low. A low index is good.

This is all fine advice for middle-aged types who've maxed out in their intellectual development, but I don't think it serves students well. The only way to learn to write well is to write often, and ambitiously, trying different styles until you find your voice. This means you will write a lot of crap along the way. Too bad if writing instructors have to slog through your dreck to earn their pay.

A skilled writer can craft long, intricate sentences that are not merely lucid, but moving. A hack can write gibberish in prose that's no more complex than Mickey Spillane's.

BTW, the Gettysburg Address has a 13.68 Fog Index.

Synova said...

Heh. I checked some of my stuff taking a random couple of paragraphs from a file. The first person romance/thriller was 9.2 ish. The third person paranormal romance was 8.5ish. The science fiction I'm working on at the moment came out higher than 13.5.

Its the wordz.

The method is flawed, however. It seems to simply count sentence length with a smattering of vocabulary. When writing fiction sentence length itself is used to control pacing for different situations. An action scene will use short words and short sentences to impart urgency. Exposition wants different treatment. Plus, science fiction has vocabulary issues.

I checked another bit that was actually an assignment for a workshop on this exact issue. My "short sentences" example averaged 6 words per sentence and a score of 4.3. The "long sentences" part which was part of the very same story, rated 14.5.

The situation for the short sentences was a tense one where at any moment people might start killing each other. The long sentence part was description and scene setting.

I suppose the test would work better for non-fiction.

Synova said...

That comment was 7.8.

leslyn said...

Synova and Chris S: :) (Fog Index 0.)

I was conscious of writing in the manner in which ones learns the Fog Index. 5.6 starts to get in the range where one sounds like "Run, Spot, run"--like Chip S wrote.

I taught a class once where one of the writing groups decided to see how low they could go. It was a 3. Had us all laughing.

The point, as I know you're aware, Synova, is to make writing accessible. Once you know how to do it practically out of habit, you can adapt it to your subject matter.

_________

As for the Gettysburg address, I get a 10.8 in the first 100 words. ??

leslyn said...

My pet peeve is "utilize" instead of "use." It's just awful. And of course the writer uses it wrongly 99% of the time, and the one time it is used correctly, the writer doesn't even know it.

Or should that be, "the writer utilizes 'utilize' wrongly"?

leslyn said...

Welcome home, Carnifex! Get well soon!

Chip S. said...

I get a 10.8 in the first 100 words.

Cherry picker. ;-) The final sentence really racks up the points.

Rereading the whole Address with an ear for the Fog Index is like watching the Golden Gate Bridge disappear in the mists. And just as beautiful.

Chip S. said...

Oooh, language peeves!

My current one is using "zero" instead of "no", often to suggest a false precision.

There is zero reason to believe that Tom Cruise doesn't.

Penny said...

Apparently Chip S. is a "big picture" kinda guy, momentarily lost in his greyscale.

Penny said...

You're welcome, Chip!

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

leslyn,

"So."

Touche. But it doesn't work everywhere. Nor do most thesaurus-oid substitutions.

I am continually tussling with an editor who sincerely believes that "but" and "though" are literally interchangeable, and thinks that I overuse the former, and therefore ("so"? it'd work there) substitutes the latter willy-nilly. Sometimes they aren't equivalent.

bgates said...

As a state senator, Obama led bipartisan passage of a bill to mandate videotaping of homicide investigations

It's an outrage that anyone ran against him for any office thereafter.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Dr. Weevil,

"As a state senator, Obama led bipartisan passage of a bill to mandate videotaping of homicide investigations" - what a titanic and earthshaking accomplishment! Ritmo doesn't tell us that it passed 35-0, which could be taken to prove how amazingly persuasive Obama was, or could be taken as showing that it was an obviously good idea that no reasonable person could possibly object to.

Oh, you can find an ostensibly reasonable person -- or, indeed, a whole crowd of ostensibly reasonable people -- to object to anything you like. But here, yes, it's rather difficult to see any opposition at all once the issue's been brought to the floor. I mean, what would be the opposing argument? Thirty years ago you might have argued expense, but when you can buy three TB of storage for well under $200, not really.

(She says, remembering the mid-80s, when the rule for HD storage was "a dollar a meg." A little different now, isn't it?)

Penny said...

You have my ear, Michelle.

And if you let go of it, maybe we could have tea some time?

Kirk Parker said...

edutcher,

"The designer is finished, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

-Saint-Exupery

Kirk Parker said...

MDT,

"This site is in a sans-serif font"

Speak for yourself; it's serif right now as I look at it (Firefox on XP.) In fact, a quick-and-dirty look at the html and css makes me think the page is actually calling for "Georgia Serif" if available; someone please correct me if I'm wrong about that.

"I am continually tussling with an editor who sincerely believes that 'but' and 'though' are literally interchangeable"

Want help beating him up? I'm available...

Kirk Parker said...

MDT,


"Thirty years ago you might have argued expense, but when you can buy three TB of storage for well under $200, not really"

Yeah, but there's unintended consequences everywhere. I have a friend who's the IT directory for the largest city in the area; production of documents in response to FOIA requests have been catastrophically affected by the presence of video archives: you have to scan and review the stuff to see if it's relevant. The backlog is long and getting longer...

Kathy said...

I wish I could get my department to let me teach a Vocabulary class......it's all about power.

Vocabulary lets people into certain groups (ergo....lack of it it keeps people out of those groups) .....

And vocabulary lets people into groups when they bother to learn the glossary of the group they want to enter.

Vocabulary = power.

Go to free rice.net for fun - expand your vocabulary and fill a rice bowl for the World Food Programme.

My Irish mother always said that the reason my draft-doging brother never really got in trouble when he was often arrested during the Vietnam War era was due to the fact that he had a great vocabulary and he new how to convey to the authorities at large that he was an educated individual.

The older and wiser that I become, the more I see how beautifully wise she was in this regard (and so many other regards).

Penny said...

Kathy, it only SEEMS about power.

Rusty said...

"If you are going to write well, read people who write well and imitate them."


I then read Christopher Hitchens and gave up entirely.


Accuracy. Whether big words or small , use the words that accurately convey the idea.


wv ighleth You'll have to excuse me I have a cold.

Kev said...

(the other kev)

And Glenn Greenwald still can't write worth a shit.

prairie wind said...

The point of good writing and good argument, truth be told, is difficult to grasp. At the end of the day, words matter. A lot. More than you think. The fact of the matter is, is, words should be used only insofar as they express something that matters.

Bob Ellison, I don't know if you were trying to be funny or not. You were, though. I think you meant to say, Good writing and argument is difficult.

Largo said...

leslyn,

One of my proudest moments as a father was when my nine year old son explained to me what mathematics was about. It was not about numbers (he said) but about "but" and "so".

gerry said...

I've known for years that post-graduate papers in education were mostly bullshit because they were so badly written.

Now, let's get copies of both Obamas' doctoral dissertations, and we'll see some REAL crap!

Mitch H. said...

A guy at the brewery last night was talking about a technique for honing in on the biggest problem with a paper or text-based presentation: look for the longest paragraph, and sift it for the flaw. The less confident a writer is about a given point, or the more difficulty they have parsing an indeterminate ball of assumptions and poorly-defined half-baked ideas, the more they'll try to paper that confusion over with lots of words. They'll also pause before breaking that tangle into two or more smaller paragraphs, because they'll have difficulty finding the seam within the tangle.

Of course, I tend to write in those undigested unparsed chunks, so YMMV.

leslyn said...

Michelle D-T,

"leslyn, "So." Touche. But it doesn't work everywhere. Nor do most thesaurus-oid substitutions." Also re your "though" and "but" problem:

Try leaving them out. It won't work all the time, but it really will work most of the time. Though it may feel uncomfortable at first.

Rewrite: Try leaving them out. It won't work all the time; it will work most of the time. It may feel uncomfortable at first.

leslyn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
leslyn said...

Largo,

One of my proudest moments as a father was when my nine year old son explained to me what mathematics was about. It was not about numbers (he said) but about "but" and "so".

That is way cool!

Chip S. said...

and?

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Kirk Parker,

Speak for yourself; it's serif right now as I look at it (Firefox on XP.) In fact, a quick-and-dirty look at the html and css makes me think the page is actually calling for "Georgia Serif" if available; someone please correct me if I'm wrong about that.

Hmmm. I'm reading this on Firefox, and it sure looks like 12-point Arial to me. Then again, I've never heard of "Georgia Serif," and I'm quite sure I don't have it on this machine.

Synova,

I don't remember when it happened but one day I'd had enough of the sorts of convoluted sentences that allowed me to avoid semi-colons.

Goodness. If I read that literally, you got fed up with convoluted sentences, and learned to stop worrying and love the semicolon. Am I right?

I like semicolons for precisely that reason, as it happens: They allow me to suggest a strong connection between two statements without having to spell it out, a process that almost always takes more words.

leslyn,

Rewrite: Try leaving them out. It won't work all the time; it will work most of the time. It may feel uncomfortable at first.

You did it, at the cost of adding a semicolon :-)

What I write is classical music reviews. Not, alas, concert reviews these days, since the publication I write for is in the SF Bay Area, while I've lived in Oregon for two years. So it's CD reviews for me. I find "but" pretty well indispensable in writing about a performance with both assets and liabilities, shall we say. It may be that I over-use it, but it doesn't follow that my editor should alter my "buts" to "thoughs" without asking me to rewrite first. For example, the previous sentence reads significantly differently if you put "though" in place of "but."

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Penny,

You have my ear, Michelle.

And if you let go of it, maybe we could have tea some time?


If you're anywhere near Salem, sure :-)

Synova said...

"Goodness. If I read that literally, you got fed up with convoluted sentences, and learned to stop worrying and love the semicolon. Am I right?"

Yes. I meant that literally. ;-)

One day I decided that risking mistakes in punctuation was preferable to making grammar pretzels.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Synova,

One day I decided that risking mistakes in punctuation was preferable to making grammar pretzels.

Semicolons aren't a mistake in punctuation; they're a use of it.

As in the previous sentence. It's true that you can put a period most places you'd put a semicolon, but not without some loss of information.

Synova said...

I'm sure I could use a semicolon incorrectly.

I'm talented. ;-)

But I won't let it stop me using them.