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In Writing, First Do No Harm

4 February 2013

From The Wall Street Journal:

All books about writing have virtually the same goal. Sometimes it’s implied, but sometimes it’s right there in the title, as in William Zinsser’s classic guide, “On Writing Well.”

The emphasis on excelling is fine but has some limitations. I’ve spent the last 20 years teaching journalism and writing classes at a selective public university, and the majority of my (bright) students put me in mind of Jack Nicholson’s line to Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men”: “You can’t handle the truth!”

My students can’t really handle writing “well.” At this point in their writing lives, that goal is too ambitious. I propose a more modest aim: not writing badly.

. . . .

The road to not writing badly starts with simplifying and clarifying. What was the author trying to express? The nub of it was that when you’re in the cafe, you notice a lot of homey stuff, and that this is surprising, or at least interesting enough to mention, because of the recent renovation. So the way to start is just by saying that as precisely as you can. Something like this: “The cafe was remodeled last year, but lots of homey touches are still evident.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire) and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

Writing Advice

3 Comments to “In Writing, First Do No Harm”

  1. Cute title.

    You know, I need to work on sentence construction, so this post came at a timely moment for me. I didn’t get the grounding in writing that I should have as a child – mostly because I was daydreaming during class – so, I liked this article.

    It’s all about readability. The better the sentence structure, the more readable it is.

    On the other hand, I think writers have to be careful not to weed out their “voice”. So, it’s a balance.

    But I could use some training. Maybe I’ll take a class from this guy.

    • I think a lot of immature writers have a voice that is a result of trying too hard. It’s not really their own, but one of trying to sound like someone else or what they think their reader wants (whether that be the agent, acquiring editor, professor, or an everyday joe).

      The sad thing is that my experience in writing classes in college was that professors pushed for what they would write instead of what the author (their student) should write. More than that, professors didn’t really critique grammar. There were some people with really horrid grammar, but if they had the content the prof wanted, they were shortlisted to the cool group. This professor sounds very different, but I think journalism is a different game.

  2. Ben Yagoda wrote a terrific bio of Will Rogers and I highly recommend it.

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