February 18, 2016
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Writing carries a message by telling something to someone who isn’t handy for conversation. That seems simple enough, but the simplicity is deceptive. Start putting the message on paper, and trouble is looking over your shoulder with every word. You know what you want to say; you could say it in conversation with little difficulty. But sit down to write and a shade seems to descend over the brain. Nothing comes out. Or, if something does come out, it’s in a peculiar form which bears little resemblance to what you would say if you were speaking to someone.
Most of us, when we write, want to be stiff and formal, to use bigger words than are necessary, or even desirable. Somewhere in our education and upbringing we got the idea that writing must be formal. Given that unnatural starting point, we take it a step further and don’t settle for mere formality. We become unclear and ambiguous. All sorts of strange things come out of the typewriter, almost as though some other personality had taken over.
There’s no magic rule that will solve the problem. Rules and formulas aren’t the answer. That isn’t to say there are no rules. The ones that tell us what’s good grammar and what isn’t are still around. But if your approach to writing is to look for rules that will save you the trouble of thinking your way out of a corner, you won’t get far. There is, however, one “rule”that you should always keep in mind. Say what you mean. And say it in the most direct, natural way you can.
– Bill Cameron, A Way With Words, © 1979 by Bill Cameron, published by Western Producer Prairie Books, Saskatoon, Sask.
September 17, 2014
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It is not a simple thing to learn how to use words to say exactly what one wants to say in the most effective way possible. But the words themselves should be simple. Here is some of the best writing advice I have come across. The first two were written by Canadians, the third by an Englishman and the fourth by an American.
In all ages pompous people use a pompous language, half-educated people an over-educated speech, and people of small intellect run to words a size too large.
Stephen Leacock, How to Write, © 1944
Too many writers have the habit of purchasing, utilizing, requiring when they need, acquiring when they get — all the time. The simpler word seems inadequate. This is an illusion. Use the simplest, most everyday words you can. . . . One way to put it into practice is to imagine that instead of putting words on paper. . . you’re talking to someone you know. If you can work that way, you’ll be bugged a little less by the inclination to lapse into bigger words than you need.
Bill Cameron, A Way With Words © 1979
It need hardly be said that shortness is a merit in words. There are often reasons why shortness is not possible; much less often there are occasions when length, not shortness, is desirable. But it is a general truth that the short words are not only handier to use, but more powerful in effect; extra syllables reduce, not increase, vigour.
H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, © 1965
If you have any doubt of what a word means, look it up. Learn its etymology and notice what curious branches its original root has put forth. See if it has any other meanings that you didn’t know it had. Master the small gradations between words that seem to be synonyms. What is the difference between “cajole,” “wheedle,” “blandish” and “coax”?
William Zinsser, On Writing Well, © 1976