On Writing Well
Do I Make Myself Clear?
(Harold Evens was the long-time editor of the London Times. Before that, he served 14 years as Editor of the Sunday Times.)
The goal of writing is “to get the right words in the right order”.
Harold calls a bad paragraph “a monster, a boa constrictor of a paragraph”.
“Muddle is likely when you write long opening phrase or clause before unveiling the ideas in the main clause”. The long thought before …. he called “predatory” because it steals the main thought. Predatory clauses up front are …. BAD.
Winston Churchill said of Ramsey MacDonald “the gift of compressing the largest number of words into the smallest amount of thought.”
A “Delayed Drop” – holding the reader in suspense, so they are impelled to read on (to find out what happened”).
Use words that are mostly short, concrete and not abstract,
A sentence forms a complex thought.
We won’t communicate anything if the sentences are so boring readers switch off.
Complex sentences are not doomed to be readable.
NOTE: Readability formulas can be found at www.readabilityformulas.com and www.readability-score.com
Lucius Sloan (1847-1933) studied sentence construction. He found that sentence word counts had been reduced over time, from 50 in pre-Elizabethan times, to 29 in Victorian times, to 23 in early 20th century. He documented a “decrease in predication”. Two predications in a sentence became the norm (down from 5).
William DuBay is the authority on readability. He judges the Dale-Chall index “the most reliable of the readability formulas”.
IN 1931, William Gray and Bernice Leary identified 228 elements that affected readability. They boiled it down to five. They are either about sentence structure or vocabulary.
Rudolf Flesch: The Art of Readable Writing
Flesh Reading Ease Index: Average length of sentences and syllables per hundred words. He urged 18 words per sentence.
Robert Gunning: The Fog Index. Copy with a fog index of 13 or more runs the danger of being ignored or misunderstood.
“Basic” vocabulary is 3,000 easy words.
Lucy Kellaway “Golden Flannel” sentences.
Blundy: averages 15 words per sentence. No sentences longer than 32 words. Average number of syllables is 2.
Adjectives not susceptible to modifiers are: certain, complete, devoid, empty, entire, essential, everlasting, excellent, external, fatal, final, fundamental, harmless, ideal, immaculate, immortal, impossible, incessant, indestructible, infinite, invaluable, main, omnipotent, perfect, principal, pure, round, simultaneous, square, ultimate, unanimous, unendurable, unique, unspeakable, untouchable, whole, worthless.
The hidden arithmetic of verbosity.
The sentence clinic.
“Try being a musician in prose. The more you experiment, the more you will appreciate the subtleties of rhythm in good writing – and bad. …. Vary sentence structure. Vary sentence style.”
Use alliteration: “none of us can be bystanders to bigotry”.
A “loose sentence”: where there is at least one full sentence before the stop.
“Periodic sentence” builds to a climax. It is a sentence of excitement and surprise.
“the Queen, my lord, is dead.”
The “balanced sentence”: is a work of deliberate symmetry.
Every man had a right to utter what he thinks is the truth, and every other man has a right to knock him down for it.
Put people first
the circumlocutory preposition (in the field of, in connection with etc)
the prepositional verb: consult (with), check (up on)
pedantry (insisting incorrectly that no sentence can end with preposition)