On Writing Well – II

It is little wonder that the child of a society drowning in ‘unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon’ should be named ‘Clutter’. This child is, according to Zinsser, ‘the disease of American writing’, and one of the main culprits named  throughout his book On Writing Well, a book I introduced in an earlier post. [Incidentally, I’m moving house today and this same child is magically appearing in every room. Yes I should be packing boxes, or vacuuming, or anything but blogging].

In Chapter 2, entitled, ‘Simplicity’, Zinsser presses that one of the secrets of good writing is to ‘strip every sentence to its cleanest components’. He contends that words that serve no function, or are too long, need to go because they weaken a sentence’s strength. Moreover, adverbs that carry the same meaning as an already-used verb must be exterminated immediately. He also notes in passing that these sentence-murderers ‘usually occur … in proportion to education and rank’. I thought: Another reason why Richard Bauckham and NT Wright are so unique.

As I read this chapter, I must confess to mixed feelings: The thesis-writer in me – suffering from a major dose of verbal diarrhoea – was bearing the full brunt of the ‘guilty-as-charged’ word. The poet in me wanted to throw the book away by page 7 because here is a recipe that seems to sap every bit of play out of prose. But I stuck with it and, once I stopped to hear what he was saying, was glad I did.

So how can we avoid birthing such an evil little child? Zinsser’s answer: ‘Clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing: one can’t exist without the other’. But what if I like my cluttered head? What if I’m scared to be without it? Then apparently we can get away with it … but only for a paragraph of two.

Just as well I only write one or two paragraphs at a time …

Previous posts in this series: Part I.

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