Marvin Olasky

Evocative images, provocative thoughts, tension without pretension -- that's what makes for good writing. I've seen so much poor writing lately that, as a public service, I'll offer some advice from great authors who also became fed up with pretentious prose.

Let's start with Mark Twain: "When you catch adjectives, kill most of them -- then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together; they give strength when they are wide apart."

Novelist John Gardner: "The abstract is seldom as effective as the concrete. ?She was distressed' is not as good as, even, ?She looked away.'"

And Jacques Barzun: "Look for all fancy wordings, and get rid of them."

William Strunk Jr. (co-author of a great little book, "The Elements of Style") writes: "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences."

Specific detail is vital, as the other co-author, E.B. White, once advised: "Don't write about Man, write about a man."

Note this from writing teacher William Zinsser: "Look for the clutter in your writing, and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Re-examine each sentence that you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? ... Simplify. Simplify."

Here's good advice from George Orwell: "Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Never use a long word where a short word will do. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. Never use the passive where you can use the active."

Essayist Sheridan Baker noted similarly, "Never use a long word when you can find a short one. ... Pick up every sentence in turn, asking ourselves if we can possibly make it shorter."

Overall, it's important to emphasize quality rather than quantity: Better to have one telling bit of specific detail than 12 nothings. (Cervantes' worst nightmare: "Let every man ... not set down at random, higgle-de-piggledy, whatever comes into his noddle.") Content and style need to go together. Look what happens to this romantic image when we couch it in math book prose: "The long -separated lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 7 p.m. traveling at 50 mph, the other from Topeka at 4 p.m. at a speed of 40 mph."

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky is editor-in-chief of the national news magazine World. For additional commentary by Marvin Olasky, visit
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