Writing badluy

How to Write Badly

As I write this, I cautiously check each phrase to ensure that it cannot be shortened. I double-check my P’s (periods) and Q’s (question marks) to be sure they are properly placed so I don’t write badly.

I look over my shoulder to see if the ghosts of William Strunk and E.B. White are watching as I type, eager to interrupt and correct my grammar. I think back to my college years when their Elements of Style was required reading in my beginning journalism class.

Blame the Web

Today, those of us who blog, tweet, and text can learn from their admonitions: use the active voice; omit needless words; put statements in positive form; use definite, specific, concrete language, and so forth. Ah, if only.

Social media networks give us license to write badly. I believe Messrs. Strunk and White would be horrified at the decimation of language. What would they think of these tweets:

Somebody is “milk drunk” HA! super content!!”

RT RepRefinery “Red Lobster misses the boat with Beyoncé’s #Formation shout-out via visibrainEN  

This is Fiesta Day 1 for us and we are toast!

Don’t Be Passive

Strunk and White urge writers to use the active tense. I was inspired to revisit this post, which I had published several years ago, when I received the recent issue of a community newsletter. The President’s letter is written almost entirely in the passive tense:

Bad: “The much needed plantings of our our tree beds were completed and residents were proud to have such lush flowers in the neighborhood, as compliments indicated.”

Better: “We completed the much needed plantings of our tree beds. Residents are enjoying the lush flowers brightening our neighborhood. The Board is pleased that so many of them called and wrote to compliment this community effort.”

From Strunk and White:

Bad: ”He was not often on time.” Better: “He usually came late.”

Use Specific Language

According to The Elements of Style: “…the surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete.”

Bad: “A period of unfavorable weather set it.” Good: “It rained every day for a week.” That specific, active phrase conveys that the writer wasn’t very happy about it.

For over a half-century, this powerful little book has been guiding writers (bad, passive phrase). I urge everyone who values simple writing to read and learn from it.

Visit Amazon to buy the book or visit your local bookstore. It may be the best $5.00 you ever spent.

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Comments

  1. Great advice! Seems writing capabilities get worse and worse while demand for excellent communication skills go up. Too bad we can’t just plug in for a download that would make us all excellent wordsmiths!

    • Janet — Unfortunately, too many college graduates enter the job market and can’t write a simple sentence. I know, because I interviewed them when I was in the agency business.

  2. I cringed as I read this post. I am the queen of the run on sentence. Apparently I also have a pathological love of the passive voice. I blame a lack of time when my writing fails. I should also blame a lack of patience since it takes both to write well.

    The silly thing is, poor, wordy, complex or coded language is just about impossible to follow when you’re busy and who isn’t busy these days? By not taking the time to get it right we are ensure that we will have to repeat ourselves or miss an opportunity. Perhaps I should pull my own dusty copy of “The Elements of Style” off the shelf and give it another look. 🙂

    • Debra — I’ve always enjoyed your blog posts, so you may be your own worst critic. As I was re-reading parts of the book today, I marveled at how current it still is after 50 years.

  3. Great tips! I’m always on the hunt to find tips for grammar. I downloaded Grammarly for my browser and am loving it. It helps me edit more effectively. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Jeannette, I think we can all stand to be corrected, grammar-wise from time to time. I’m going to have to download Grammarly and then go through my past posts to see how I measure up. I know for some reason today I was struggling with comma placement, a grammar action that should be automatic.

    • Hi Rose — I had my old one, too, but a few years ago I bought the 50th Anniversary edition and gave several to writer friends as gifts. Still so timely.

  5. I think that any author, no matter how experiences or celebrated, can always use some pointers when it comes to writing.

    People believe proper writing is learned once. This is incorrect; it is more like a sport. You constantly have to challenge yourself to become better at it.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • William — I like your analogy that writing is like a sport. You need to keep practicing to get better at it. That’s certainly one way to look at it.

  6. I was trained as a journalist so concise writing was always the goal. One of the things my first publisher used to say is that if you could delete a word from a sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence, it didn’t belong there in the first place. One of the things that bothers me about social media writing is the effusive use of adjectives, especially the gushing, superlative kind like fabulous or amazing. They’ve become meaningless.

    • Ken — couldn’t agree more about being concise in your writing. That’s one of the cardinal rules of Strunk & White. Remove meaningless words.

  7. Excellent advice. The thing about writing a lot, particularly blogging, is that it’s easy to get so focused on the task at hand that you fall into the trap of stumbling over basic writing skills. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Marquita — It seems to be acceptable these days — again, the influence of social media — to take license with grammar and for special effect. Sometimes it works. But most times I find grammatical errors jarring.

  8. Great post Jeannette. I use Grammarly ever since I wrote my Communication Toolkit for Introverts book. I went round and round with the publisher in the final editing stages. I wasn’t happy with some of the editing of my writing. If I had known about Grammarly before that, I would have run every page of my book through it. But, live and learn.

    • Patricia — I can see where Grammarly could be very useful in writing a book. I have a good friend who has written and published a book and she had a very poor editor (paid very well). There are many grammatical errors which I feel detracts from the book and that’s a shame because the content is so good.

  9. Our writing and grammar has really gone downhill, especially with texting and Twitter limiting you to a certain number of characters. Everything is shortened, spelled incorrectly, etc. So often we see “excuse the typos this was sent from my iPhone” or something along those lines. I admit I fall in to the habit too at times. Its just become so commonplace. People know its wrong, but figure oh well they’ll get the gist of what I mean. Everyone should purchase this.

    • Susan — I like your iPhone example, which I see quite often. Instead of correcting our mistakes we expect our readers to accept them — too much trouble to do it ourselves, I guess.