The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Friday, Jan. 1:
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” –Ernest Hemingway
Leilen Shelton, a middle school teacher in Costa Mesa, Calif., might translate that famous dictum from the famously plain-writing Hemingway this way: “All you have to do is write one illuminating, ineluctably verifiable sentence. Author the most perspicacious sentence that you comprehend.”
Shelton wrote “Banish Boring Words,” a crusade against milquetoast words like “good,” “bad,” “fun” and “said.” Some of her disciples also eschew “go,” “run,” “happy,” “walk” and “see.”
“There are so many more sophisticated rich words to use,” Shelton told The Wall Street Journal. Instead of “said,” for instance, she recommends bark, howl, cackle, demand.
We salute Shelton’s campaign against lifeless language. But we worry that the admonition to gussy up writing by jettisoning short, common words in favor of allegedly more expressive terms could go awry in the hands of the average seventh-grader. Sometimes people do say things. They don’t aver them. Or assert them. Or declare them.
One website suggests “200 Ways to Say Went” and includes “wormed” and “peregrinated.” That sound you hear is a collective groan from a nation of seventh-grade English teachers.
By all means, budding sesquipedalians, ransack your Thesaurus. Scour it for synonyms to replace tepid words. Learn the thrill of unearthing le mot juste – the perfect word for a sentence; 19th century French novelist Gustave Flaubert, who coined the phrase, often spent weeks in that pursuit.
Some writers pursue the perfect word to show off their test-ready vocabularies, which is egotistical.
Others pursue the perfect word because they want their writing to be lively, which is admirable, to a point.
Still others – Can you hear our soft applause? And the shy trumpet? – pursue the perfect word because it will bring clarity, precision of meaning, to their thoughts, their sentences, their paragraphs, their essays, their books.
To be crisply effective, writing has to efficiently communicate what the writer wants to say. It must be clear. When words send readers exploring alleys of thought – I wonder if, by laconic, she’s trying to tell me “lazy” or “slow”? – then the less likely they are to rejoin the writer’s journey, let alone reach its destination.
So remember, we beg, that words are tools, not bludgeons. Avoid obscure polysyllabic words that no one else can read, spell or … understand. Because your readers may just stop reading. For them, nothing is easier.
Once you know all the fancy terms, you can choose to wield the simple ones with greater force.
In time, a skilled teacher will mention that understatement often is more powerful than overstatement.
Clarity of purpose, precision of word choice, not letting readers stray from the journey, tools not bludgeons, the power of understatement. Now you’re getting somewhere.
Writing a true declarative sentence, Hemingway said, is “a good and severe discipline.”
In other words, it’s a lot of fun.
Tribune Content Agency