Last week’s blog, “Being a Being Who Has a Pet Grammar Peeve,” was the first of a series highlighting some of the common errors I encounter when I edit and proofread. As promised, this week I’ll begin to tackle affected writing styles.
There are many different types of mistakes writers make when they attempt to sound “learned” or “literary,” but as any good writing coach will tell you, simpler is almost always better. Many beginning writers (and sadly, many established ones as well) think using “big” words is better, but I agree with Writing Rule #3 from Lifeloom.com: Eschew ostentatious erudition.
Description is important. So is clarity. As Dean Reick wrote on Copyblogger, “To sound smart, you must stop trying to sound smart. Brilliant writing is simple writing, a relevant idea delivered clearly and directly.”
I recently edited a manuscript with the sentence, “To facilitate this change, I suggested that [Mary] commence the exercises I had recommended.” While there is nothing technically wrong with that sentence, why fill your work with words plucked from a thesaurus if you don’t need to? Consider this alternative, which is much simpler: “I suggested that Mary begin the exercises I’d recommended to help her with the change.”
The Writing Center at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a great online style handout that includes a list of common stock phrases and their one-word replacements. For example: is able to, is in a position to, has the opportunity to, has the capacity for, has the ability to . . . are all ways to say “can.”
Now please don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that you forgo every use of phrases that add some variety or nuance; that is a style choice.
What I am suggesting is that you take a moment to consider how you could rephrase a sentence to be grammatically correct while expressing your point as clearly and succinctly as possible. Strive to express your ideas in the most direct, elegant, and persuasive way possible. I love my thesaurus, too, but I make sure I understand the nuance of the word I’ve plucked from it before I choose it over the word I want to replace.
Here’s another example from the UNC handout:
For example, if your paper discusses the significance of memory represented by the scent of wisteria in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, you are going to write the words “memory” and “wisteria” a lot. Don’t start saying “recollection,” “reminiscence,” “summoning up of past events,” and “climbing woody vine” just to get a little variation in there. A thesaurus might even lead you to say that the significance of nostalgia is represented by the odiferous output of parasitic flowering vegetation. . . . Remember that your goal in . . . writing is not to sound intelligent, but to get your intelligent point across.
I’d love your comments about this or other grammar goofs. I hope you’ll share them here or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for stopping by.
Next week: Passive Writing