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 end to write a new draft. The reason for this is that when you reboot, you encourage a host of new ideas and perspectives to be a part of your thinking, thoughts that were blocked because of your preoccupation with your old draft. As a result, words often come very quickly.
Plus, you never really throw away your work when you take this route (I always save old drafts just so I can see the changes I made). You are building on previous observations, connections, and arguments. Writing is seldom a linear process.
If you really get stuck with your writing, or if you feel like what you have is not getting you where you want to go, don’t be afraid to wipe the slate clean and start again. It may not be the most convenient way to proceed, but remember: the goal here is to produce your best writing. Nobody said this was easy!
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 is Flesch’s legacy. It has been sold to software companies for use in word processors such as Microsoft Word, where readability scores are usually a component of the spellcheck feature. SEO companies such as Yoast also use the score to help authors create more readable content, although the current iteration of the score formula only tabulate sentence length and syllable count per word.
For many, a science of readable writing will surely have an appealing ring to it, especially in this technology-driven age. The major question, of course, is whether or not people can or should write according to a dictates of formula.
Even if his methods seem unrealistic, Flesch’s work confirms the importance of clarity in writing. The process of revising for clarity may look different from one person to the next, the readability formula simply providing one novel strategy. But if people cannot extract the message from your writing, it is effectively useless. You should always be asking if yourself if your writing is clear enough to be understood.
The ability to run a quick test on your computer is a luxury people did not have thirty years ago. Take advantage of a useful tool that yields good information. How would your revision process be affected, for example, if you learned your writing was ‘slightly difficult’ to read? Would you go back and perhaps try to cut down on the length of your sentences? If the readability score motivates you to do even just a little bit of reshaping and restructuring, then it is good knowledge to have.
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 that don’t suit his liking, incidentally) suggests that he feels himself above the great majority of his readers.
By contrast, descriptivists are curious about how languages evolve as living organisms and about how languages are actually used by people (rather than how rules dictate how they should be used). They reject entirely the notion that languages stay static, as well as the claim that certain forms of language are inherently superior to others. Most linguists, Pullum (the linguist from the last post who was so critical of Strunk and White) very much included, are descriptivists. In short, their intention is to describe language, its features, and most important, its adaptations over time. Critics feel descriptivists take a no rules approach to grammar. This is hardly true, and Pullum acknowledges that English has plenty of rules that brook no exception. Descriptivism simply chooses to advance the belief that there are times when many valid forms exist within the language rather than one right way.
If nothing else, a brief knowledge of these two approaches should make you slightly more skeptical of dogmatic pronouncements about language, as such statements can sometimes be ignorant of the highly much more complex aspects of the grammar.
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 overlooks this because he is more offended at the more egregious problems in the manual delivered in a prescriptive tone. And these objections deserve to be taken seriously. The Elements of Style is not the hallowed text it was once though to be. But if it can help writers gain awareness of the value of clarity and conciseness, then, if used judiciously, it can have some value.
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. The admissions team learned from this ostensible failure, however. They made sweeping changes to the essay prompts, which have been incredibly popular in addition to yielding great results.
The first key insight as you start working on your essay is to start doing the heavy lifting that comes in the form of the Socratic imperative to “know thyself.” This is what the best programs, like Fuqua, are clearly asking for. This is the light they want shed on your portfolio. And it is an incredibly difficult question to answer unless you stop, tune out the world and all its distractions, and focus on your true identity. The question is, “Who are you, really?” Beyond the GPA? Beyond the GMAT? Beyond the extra-curriculars? What makes you an interesting person? In the talk of the business world, what would make someone want to share a beer with you? Almost as if to say we value these nuggets of uniqueness, these bullet points, more than felicitous prose, Duke scrapped one essay and required candidates to submit a list of 25 random things, a sort of character pastiche in order to “fill the gaps.” Candidates have eaten it up, supposedly. But you have to know yourself, in order to do this, and you have to be genuine in your reporting of your identity. Whether you are giving bullet factoids, as Duke now allows you to do, or shaping this information into a prose narrative, the common trait (what admissions departments are crying out for) is that you are presenting yourself as an authentic you, not as a you that you think other people want to see or read about.
The second key insight has to do with the manner in which you present yourself, and it will require you to take a bit of a risk. You cannot embellish your GPA or your GMAT score or your personal recommendations. They’re set in stone, unalterable. If you are applying to a top-tier school, you will undoubtedly be in the company of people who are all equally excellent. It stands to reason, then, that you will need an essay that further establishes your excellence. But, ironically, you may do this not by outlining all the incredibly excellent things you do or have done in the past. If you read the random things that Overbay and other members of her team list on the blog, you may be surprised at how seemingly mundane the items appear. Overbay has a passion for baking and talks about how this differs from cooking. One of her team members has asthma. Another knows how to juggle. Not every person who applies to top schools has to have started his/her own business as a middle school student, to have worked as a medical missionary in Africa, or to have sold three non-profits. Remember: if you needed to be a fully polished product in order to gain admittance into business school, there would be little need for the education one gets there.
Perhaps it sounds like a long con once you learn that Overbay had an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League School (Cornell) when she applied to Duke and is only divulging her random things from a comfortable Director position. She wouldn’t have dared to write an essay about something as dull and ordinary as baking when she was going through the admissions process herself, you say. Maybe, maybe not. You have to go off the strength of her revelations about what one school is looking for now. That more and more schools are going out of their way to retool their essay prompts because they want more access to the terms ‘unique’ and ‘individual’ as they apply to the candidate should make you feel comfortable taking a chance. Do not succumb to the false belief that a superficially common topic such as baking or asthma must inevitably lead to simplistic or boring writing. With proper coaching and the correct narrative template, these themes, along with a host of others that candidates might otherwise deem boring, can lead to supremely highly personable and highly engaging essays.
These two insights represent a clarion call to think about your admission essay in a new way. It is possible to introduce yourself effectively using seemingly ordinary experiences, and provided you have spent time reflecting on what is that really motivates you (outside of getting into school) your writing will most likely be more genuine than if you try to focus on experiences you think will impress your readers. Don’t forget that healthy reflection is part of the writing process, and the sooner you get a handle on this essential step, the easier the words will flow.
People often use the word ‘hone’ when they mean ‘home,’ as in the following sentence: “Let’s take a minute to hone in on their weaknesses and then build an effective strategy.” The correct word here is ‘home.’ This is a more subtle error, and if you begin to pay attention, you will probably hear it uttered on radio and TV in addition to your everyday life. But as with grammatical errors in general, this trip up is viewed more sternly in written form.
The verb ‘to hone’ means “to make more acute, intense, or effective,” as in, “He honed his Scrabble skills by playing repeatedly against the computer.” By contrast, the verb “to home,” means, “to proceed or direct attention toward an objective.”
An easy way to remember the distinction between the two is to call to mind either a homing device—a guiding system that brings an object (typically a missile) to its target—or a homing pigeon—a type of pigeon with an innate ability to find its way back to its nest. Both can be effective means for capturing the abstract concept of distant-to-close, wide-to-narrow conveyed by the verb.
English is a remarkably flexible language, and words have historically changed their meanings over time. It is entirely possible that over the next one hundred years ‘hone’ may take on a new meaning as a result of today’s usage. For now, though, stick to the proper definition, especially when you’re writing.
Chapter 3 of Fareed Zakaria’s latest book In Defense of a Liberal Education has some important remarks about writing, ones that are worth exploring here.
Very often, proponents of Liberal Education say that it teaches students how to think. This is fine, but for Zakaria, thoughts only begin to take shape once pen is put to paper. Or, put slightly differently, thoughts become more shapely and coherent once they are worked out and groomed by the writing process.
Zakaria writes about an influential English teacher from his youth. Authoritarian and liberal in his use of the red correcting pencil, he impressed upon Zakaria the importance of concise and well-articulated prose. While many today might object to the methods employed by this teacher, few will take issue with the core belief that’s at stake here, namely that ideas don’t come out of the head fully shaped and ready to go to press.
Consider Zakaria reflections on his own writing:
When I begin to write, I realize that my “thoughts” are usually a jumble of half-formed ideas strung together, with gaping holes between them. It is the act of writing that forces me to sort them out. Writing the first draft of a column or essay is an expression of self-knowledge—learning just what I think about a topic, whether there is a logical sequence to my ideas, and whether the conclusion flows from the facts at hand.
A few things should jump out at you after reading this. First, someone as established as Zakaria still produces “jumbles” of “half-formed ideas” when he first sets out to write something. And even after finishing a draft, there may be “gaping holes” in it. This should help you feel comfortable concluding that no one produces flawless sentences on the first go around. No one. So take that pressure off of yourself if this is what you’ve been trying to do with your own writing. Or if this is how you’ve gotten by in the past, it’s time to start changing your tune.
Because when Zakaria says “first draft,” what’s implicit here is that he’s working through many drafts before you read the finished product. Revision must be a central aspect of your writing, not only to comb out the kinks in your mechanics but more important to give your ideas the requisite time to develop. Zakaria really wants you to understand this as personal discovery, but not in flowery, self-help kind of way. If you want to build mature, coherent thought, you must write.
You might be tempted to say, “I know what I think” and leave it at that. But turning our abstract thoughts into concrete sentences forces us to contend with inconsistencies, weak arguments, and other aspects of our thinking that we don’t have to deal with when we leave it in our head. Then we know for sure. And this knowledge brings confidence.
Much of Zakaria’s book is set up as an apologetic for Liberal Education in terms of its exchange value in the so-called global marketplace, so he refers to writing as an invaluable skill. Of course, it is just that. But self-knowledge, through writing, can also be worth pursuing as an end unto itself. I urge you to think of it in both terms.
On rare occasions, I get a letter where the attempt to pluralize my surname ends up being a grotesque error: The Yate’s. Though I have never extended my research project in an effort to explain these errors, I’m confident they’re a result of panic taking over when the writer has no confidence in a rule.
In general, people tend to get into a swivet when apostrophes are added to nouns that end in ‘s.’ So let’s take the time to review the rule.
To get clear, apostrophes are used to form contractions (such as it’s, can’t, or wouldn’t) as well as to show possession (as in “That is my father’s car”). We are dealing with the second use in this post.
Let’s start first with nouns that don’t end in ‘s’.’ If the noun is singular, you add ‘s to the end in order to denote possession. If the noun is plural, you need the apostrophe only. For example:
The man’s wallet is on the desk.
The ladies’ bridge game is cancelled. (the singular, of course, is ‘lady’)
This is old hat, I suspect.
Typically, style guides tell you to use an apostrophe after famous names that end in ‘s,’ such as Jesus or Achilles. But for less exalted names—to show that the car belongs to Chris, for example—the teaching has been, until quite recently, to treat them the same as other nouns, namely to show possession by adding ‘s. A sentence would then read, “Chris’s car broke down on the bridge the other night.”
This is the point where, in my experience, most people look upon such a construction and say, “that’s weird” or “that just doesn’t look right.” This reaction is almost certainly based on tricks played by the double ‘s’ and the havoc these tricks wreak on the writer’s confidence in the rules of punctuation. English is not a stagnant language, though, and it is now acceptable to write either Chris’ car or Chris’s car. The challenge to the writer is to be consistent. That is, you need to pick one approach and stay with it throughout your writing.
Showing possession of a plural should be a two-step process, and the trick is not to allow yourself to be tripped up by nouns that end in ‘s.’ So, if I am describing my car, we now know I have two options:
Notice here that whichever option I choose, the apostrophe comes after the final ‘s’ of ‘Yates.’ The central problem with the example at the beginning of this post is that the writer did not leave the surname intact as an autonomous unit. “Yate” has no value as a name.
If I want to describe the home in which all of my family members live, the first thing I need to do is write the plural of my surname: Yateses. Then, to show possession, I follow the rule for plurals (add an apostrophe only). Finally, I compose a sentence:
The Yateses’ home is yellow.
Is your message incoherent if you write, “The Yates’ home is yellow”? No. Seldom does a mistake in punctuation lead to this outcome. The issue here has more to do with enhancing precision in your writing. It begs the question, which Yates?
Precision may start small at first, but you are ultimately working to tighten up all of your writing. Furthermore, you will find that the small things combine to play a big role in helping your writing become more precise. Your time in learning the rules will be not be in vain.