The Value of the Reboot

You may occasionally find yourself in a situation where you write a piece and don’t like the finished product. For some reason, it just doesn’t sit well with you. Maybe it doesn’t express your point as clearly as you’d like. Maybe the writing seems dull and lifeless. Maybe you get the impression you’re taking the wrong angle on your topic. The place to take up these concerns is in the editing phase. So, if you’re concerned that your piece is lifeless, you can analyze your use of language and figure out how to make your writing livelier. The same goes for enhancing clarity. But sometimes you can edit in earnest and still not like the finished product. What then? Sometimes, the best thing to do is walk away from the existing draft and start again. This is an unappealing option, to be sure, given the work you’ve already done. But it’s possible to exhaust yourself when editing, especially if you have been trying to manipulate your document into something it doesn’t want to be. You don’t want this to happen. Suppose you get the impression you’re taking the wrong angle on your topic, as mentioned above. It’s possible to rectify this problem through editing. But this is a much more labor-intensive project than revising for clarity, and it may not be worth it, especially if it is a shorter document. Provided you have the time (and only you can be the judge of this), the better option is to start again. Even though it sounds like more work up front, it may actually take you less time in the...

The Legacy of Rudolph Flesch

You probably haven’t heard of Rudolph Flesch, but there’s a good chance you’ve encountered his work while using a word processor or other digital applications where writing plays a role. Given that The Art of Plain Talk was published in 1946, and that the studies of writing and language have changed considerably since then, it’s impressive that he is still taken seriously today. So what did Flesch say then that still makes him relevant now? He argues that writing improves when it’s made simpler and easier to read. Flesch tries to approach English scientifically, generating a formula to calculate how writing can be made more readable. He identifies three key attributes to serve as the basis for what he calls “Plain Talk,” his version of clear and accessible writing. First, it has short sentences (he argues that a text becomes difficult to read when sentence length increases beyond 17 words). Second, it is unencumbered by affixes (either prefixes or suffixes or both). Affixes, he believes, negatively affect the readability of a text and should be either minimized or eliminated. Third, it has many personal references (in the form of personal pronouns), as this increases the accessibility of the piece. It’s important to see that the attributes are quantifiable. A tally can be generated for each, and these numbers can be plugged into a formula to generate a readability score. This is the science of Flesch’s work. Typically, evaluations of writing are highly subjective, but by allowing for these attributes to be quantified, a text can be viewed completely objectively, at least in terms of its readability. The readability score...

Analyzing Prescriptivism and Descriptivism

Within contemporary linguistics (the study of language and the way languages work), there are two approaches to grammar, prescriptivism and descriptivism. A brief understanding of these terms gives context for how usage guides like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style are aimed at the general public as well as how the language is studied as a formal science. People who consider themselves wardens of the language are prescriptivists. Firmly convinced there is a ‘right’ way to speak, they believe there is a ‘correct’ English that sets the standard for all other variations of the language. Not surprisingly, this correct English is considered superior to all other forms. Statements such as, “if you want to get a good job, you had better get rid of that accent,” mark a prescriptivist attitude toward language, even if the speaker has good intentions. Prescriptivists tend to be highly unreceptive to change as it applies to language, often making the highly contentious claim that language is constantly eroding and has gotten noticeably worse, even in their lifetime. If prescriptivists are of the opinion that there is a correct English, then it shouldn’t surprise you that the most outspoken advocates are practitioners of this form, of course. Armed with the belief that their English is fundamentally superior to all others, many prescriptivists communicate in a haughty and sanctimonious way. Strunk and White are clearly a part of the prescriptivist camp, Struck probably more so than White. If you look closely at the writing in Elements, his talk of people being ‘illiterate’ if they use certain terms, or ‘vulgar’ if they use others (always ones...

Another Look at Strunk and White

Occasionally, it’s worth reading what authorities have to say about other supposed authorities. When we consult a language handbook, it usually doesn’t occur to us to second-guess the author. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, quite possibly the most celebrated handbook in the United States, offers an instructive example of why we should not be so trusting. Linguist Geoffrey Pullum, based at the University of Edinburgh, has written bitter denunciations of Elements. First in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education and then in more elaborate form for English Today, Pullum systematically examines several of the guide’s pronouncements and shows how they are frequently based only on prejudice or, worse, reflect the authors’ severe misunderstanding of English grammar. To read Pullum’s work is to watch a career linguist eviscerate a venerable English professor and his student, the renowned E.B. White. Not only does he show their incompetence in the rules they cite, but also he quotes acclaimed authors doing precisely what Struck and White say should be avoided. Is there anything redeeming in the book, then? Not according to Pullum, who calls the vaunted guide an “unkillable zombie,” “one of the worst things to have happened to English language education in America in the past century.” It’s not going to show up on his reading list any time soon, in other words. Pullum’s main objections are related to grammar, and he dismisses comments about style as “vapid” or “obvious.” Perhaps so, but the guide’s focus on conciseness has a beneficial influence, and a few of its tips can help less experienced writers tighten sentences. Quite possibly, Pullum...

Two Key Insights for a Stronger MBA Admission Essay

A few years ago, Megan Lynam Overbay, then Director of Admissions at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, revealed some of the challenges her team faced when selecting candidates at the top-tier North Carolina school. Specifically, she confessed on a Fuqua-sponsored blog that her department had been struggling to find satisfactory essay prompts, ones to showcase effectively their candidates’ uniqueness. While grade point averages and GMAT scores provide an objective assessment of an applicant, essays are far more subjective. Overbay states explicitly that, for Duke, the essay serves as a stopgap measure, a piece that “will fill any gaps in the application, tie the application’s story together, and shed light on what truly makes the person who they are—beyond what is stated in the resume, test scores, and transcripts.” This is essay as color commentary. But as Overbay reflects on her time as Director and considers what the Admissions Department was getting for the most part, one senses a trace of disappointment: “Despite our best intentions, it can be difficult to convey what we are seeking through our essay questions, and we sometimes receive submissions that are regurgitations of information found elsewhere in the application, overly manufactured versions of what applicants think we want to hear, or in some cases, plagiarism of content found online.” This is an extraordinary concession for such a person to make, especially if we read between the lines a bit. The implication is that Overbay and her team were failing, failing in too many cases to get meaningful essays from their candidates. As is often the case, bad prompts generate poor (even plagiarized) writing....