The Write Stuff:
Writing as a Performing and Political Art
Thomas E. Cronin
Leaders are often writers, and great writing is a potent form of leadership; it can heighten consciousness, outrage us, encourage us to protest or even to wage war. Writing can be an effective means of communicating, persuading, and changing how people think, dream, and behave. Machiavelli, Jefferson, Madison, Marx, Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Orwell, Rachael Carson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Alexander Solzhenitsyn provide inspiring examples.
Writers always have advice for aspiring writers: Read good writers and good writing. Use as many words as you must and as few as you can. Don't use long words where short ones will do. Use the language of everyday life, yet don't substitute common words for striking and distinctive words just to keep it simple. Say what you mean and sound like yourself. At the same time, strive for cadence, smoothness and freshness. Clarity of writing flows from clarity of thought. Write five pages a day, every day. Make every word count.
Direct your writing to a single reader, or at least to a distinct audience. Signal your voice, tone, and theme in your first two paragraphs. Write to inform, arouse, persuade. "Readers . . . have a tough job to do," notes Kurt Vonnegut, "and they need all the help they can get" from writers.1 After all, readers have to decipher thousands of little notations and make sense of them. Unlike symphony musicians, they have no conductor to lead them through an essay or book. Few phrases signal how fast or slow, or loud or soft a text is to be read. Punctuation can help. "Punctuation marks," writes Pico Iyer, "are the road signs placed along the highways of our communicationto control speeds, provide directions and prevent head-on collisions."2
What follows are suggestions and cautions for students writing research papers or for would-be leaders writing their declarations of independence, letters from jail, or manifestos.
Essays on writing provide countless rules for effective communication. The most frequent exhortation is that the difference between poor writing and good writing lies in careful revising and editing. Edit, recast, and tighten your material. Have the guts to cut. Spare the reader high-flown rhetoric, windy generalizations, tired clichés, uncritical thought. Still, you will have to custom design your own rules and be prepared, more than occasionally, to break them rather than write barbarous prose. Somerset Maugham advised: "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."3
Make no mistake about it. Research, writing, rewriting, and editing are hard work, even for the professional. You won't hear professional scholars or writers boast about the easiness of their craft. To write well requires intellectual rigor and self-discipline, the kind that seldom comes naturally. No matter how much they love it, and they often love it more than anything else, they find it lonely and often painful.
Ernest Hemingway emphasized that writing, at its best, is exacting and often frustrating, in part because it is something you can never do as well as it can be done. Hemingway rewrote his ending of Farewell to Arms 39 times before he was satisfied. "There's no rule on how it is to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it is like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges," Hemingway remarked. "I love to write," he added, "but it has never gotten any easier to do and you can't expect it to if you keep trying for something better than you can do."4
Hemingway believed each writing project should be a new beginninga time to try again for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. One cannot, he said, be satisfied to write in another way what already has been well written. No. It is precisely because we have known such fine writers in the past that we who write are driven far beyond where we are comfortable, to where no one can help us.
The joy of research and writing comes from the challenge of being out there on your own, rethinking the explored realm of human relations and vision, and examining the unexplored. Writing itself is one of the grand, free, human activities. Working back and forth between experiences and ideas, evidence and imagination, data and theory, a writer has more than space and time can offer. And a writer with a sense of justice can remind us what ought to be, what might be, and where we have failed. No one has made this point better than Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his 1970 Nobel Prize address:
The task of the artist is to sense more keenly than others the harmony of the world, the beauty and the outrage of what man has done to it, and poignantly to let people know. . . .
Literature transmits condensed and irrefutable human experience in still another priceless way: from generation to generation. It thus becomes the living memory of a nation. What has faded into history thus keeps warm and preserves in a form that defies distortion and falsehood. Thus literature, together with language, preserves and protects a nation's soul. . . .
What is the place and role of the writer? . . . A writer is no sideline judge of his fellow countrymen and contemporaries; he is equally guilty of all the evil done in his country or by his people. If his country's tanks spill blood on the streets of some alien capital, the brown stains are splashed forever on the writer's face. If, some fatal night, his trusting friend is choked to death while sleeping, the bruises from the rope are on the writer's hands. If his young fellow citizens in their easy going way declare the superiority of debauchery over frugal labor, abandon themselves to drugs or seize hostages, the stink of it mixes with the writer's breathing.5
As in the mastery of any skill, writing requires discipline. If you already know how to use time effectively and can doggedly stick to a schedule, you will find writing papers relatively easy. You may even enjoy it. Most of us, however, are accomplished procrastinators and easily diverted. A research assignment can overwhelm you if you let it. Yet, if planned carefully, it can strengthen self-discipline and markedly sharpen your ability to manage time.
Be prepared to retreat to a quiet place and devote several hours a day for two or three weeks to uninterrupted, focused concentration. For extroverts, this schedule is like being sentenced to solitary confinement. If you are going to take pride in your writing, however, you must resign yourself to devoting time to extensive reading and research, rigorous analysis, and intense thought, not to mention the hours of writing, rewriting, revising, and editing that a first-rate research project requires.
Selecting a Topic
Search for a worthy topic. To attack a problem that is trivial or uninteresting is a waste of everyone's time. Avoid, if you can, writing about a solution in search of a problem or a solution that fits the wrong problem. Avoid, too, the zero-risk or perfectionist inclination to tackle only those questions that are tidy, unimportant, or readily answered. Any writing project, whether a senior thesis, an opinion essay, testimony before a legislature, or a treatise on a social or political issue, is an opportunity to match your talents and abilities against a perplexing human problem.
Make sure your topic interests you enough to devote the time needed for research and writing. Make sure it is researchable and that it has not already been so researched that little new territory remains. Take care not only that you don't bite off more than you can chew, but that you don't chew more than is worth chewing.
Simple curiosity spawns many writing projects: the urge to understand something better, to resolve or at least to grasp a paradox, dilemma, or set of previously unsolved, unanswered questions. My own research often springs from questions students or others ask me and from question-and-answer sessions on the lecture circuit. When I give an answer I am not wholly satisfied with, I say to myself, "That's a fine question, and it deserves a better answer."
Perhaps something has been puzzling you, or a topic has been covered inadequately in an earlier course or by a speaker you've recently heard or a book you've just read. Topics arise from discussions with friends, teachers, or parents or from your own observations in a job, internship or campaign experience. You may also be motivated by the search for truth or by an outrage at hypocrisy, lies, and injustice. Good writing is often both an act of courage and telling the truth about things as you see them.
Refining and Researching Your Topic
As you decide on a research topic, ask yourself some questions about it. What do I intend to emphasize? What's the big idea? Or puzzle? Or confusion? What is it I want to discover, solve, learn more about? Why does X institution, or process, or leadership theory work in its own peculiar way? Could or should it be otherwise?
How, for example, is powerful political leadership best held accountable? How can we lessen the tension between democracy and leadership? How much separation between "brain and state" is desirable? Are changes needed in our political system? Is one party better able to solve our problems than the other? Are our economic deficiencies or our inability to curb nuclear proliferation due to governmental structures, inadequate leadership, or deficiencies in vision and a dearth of ideas? You will have to narrow the topic in accord with your time and talent. Just don't narrow it to a trivial pursuit.
What is the central issue? Define it. Explore its origins and development. Explain its consequences. If it is a policy, process, or constitutional interpretation, you may want to analyze its effect on current and future political leaders. Try to discern the underlying assumptions or agendas of groups advocating change or the status quo. In what ways do different schools of thought define the problem differently, and why?
You will want to clarify your topic by gathering and assimilating as much material, qualitative and quantitative, as possible. Conduct a thorough search of the library literature, periodicals, and available documents. You will sometimes discover works that already have been answered, or at least addressed, parts of your topic. Explore the availability of polling or survey data that may shed light on the problem. You may find, too, as I generally do, that interviewing knowledgeable professors, recognized leaders or experts, and current and former public officials will be necessary and productive. Never underestimate the talent of your local librarians, especially those who are specialists with reference works, computer search technologies, and government documents. They can become splendid allies.
Equally important is knowing when to stop researching and start writing. Saying you need more time for research often masks procrastination. "The temptation to read one more book or search another library shelf was always great," remarked a recent Ph.D. dissertation writer. "Investigation leads one to ask questions which demand one to ask questions which demand answers. Those answers in turn breed new questions and so on until the process gets out of hand. I found it necessary to place strict time limits on my work. Sometimes this meant altering objectives to comply with a timetable. This was not to short change myself, but rather to avoid becoming paralyzed by perpetual analysis."6 Knowing when you have enough material to substantiate your claims, enlighten your reader, and put the problem in context, is a skill writers need to develop. Remember the aphorism: "Strive for excellence but not for perfection."
Developing and Testing Hypotheses
Good writers do not just describe a problem and raise possible solutions offhand. Prepare a list of likely solutions or likely answers to your research question. Anticipate objections and contrary arguments. Experiment with competing or even opposing theoretical hypotheses. How does your hypothesis stand up to critical review? Ask yourself, What if . . . ? Be clear about cause-and-effect relationships. Clarify your dependent and independent variables. For example, were the leaders shaped by their group or their situation, or were they the primary shapers?
Don't be constrained by conventional wisdom or the dominant mind set of the day. Inventions, scientific breakthroughs, and better answers often come only when you step outside existing paradigms. Disregard the prevailing wisdom and ask bold questions, pose fresh possibilities. Be imaginative.
Of course, this strategy for making hypotheses is easier to suggest than to do. The trick is finding those bold questions. Ask a lot of questions, and a few are likely to be bold. Still we are, more than we appreciate, creatures of habit and cultural conditioning. Undaunted, try to discern the paradigmatic or mind-set shifts that are taking place or perhaps need to take place.7
Logical reasoning is usually important at this point. You will want to test, systematically, the plausible explanations you have posed. With a bit of ingenuity you can test solutions to difficult problems without making each particular test a two- or three-year enterprise. Please appreciate, however, that empirical testing and the most rigorous forms of critical reasoning are indispensable to building the body of reliable knowledge needed to arrive at your conclusions.
Amassed information is not knowledge, merely a distant cousin. Information and findings are important only as intermediate phases of your research. You must make sense of what you have gathered and learned. This step involves analysis and interpretation. Ultimately, writing a paper is an interpretive process. The skilled writer makes interpretive sense of the stories, aspirations, myths, and the symbolic as well as practical ideas that shape behavior.
Students of leadership formulate theories about the "why" and the "so what" of political life and governance. Aristotle called the study of leadership and governance the "queen of sciences" and classified city-states according to their political structures, making predictions about how different structures would lead to different outcomes. Plato examined the need for enlightened leaders and the responsibilities of wise, informed leaders. Machiavelli, the famed author of The Prince, prescribed how rulers should best govern to maximize their own interests and how citizens would respond to different styles of leadership. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were all political theorists interested in formulating governance arrangements that would balance liberty and order, responsibility and leadership. Those who drafted the Constitution in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia acted as both political philosophers and political architects as they merged experience and theory in the formation of practical political institutions.
Social scientists study patterns of politics, patterns of leadership, and the exercise of power and authority. They describe things as a means of understanding. Understanding often leads to explanations; explanations can lead to predictive models; and predictions can generate sound theory.
We search for the predictable to discover, to describe, and, if possible, to verify the basic laws of politics, leadership, and governance. Although Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics showed the way, rigorous efforts to learn enough to predict have been essentially a twentieth-century phenomenon.
Back to your challenge. Most topics you will tackle already have been written about by one or more scholars. You may be put off by this. Your challenge, however, is to examine the problem with a fresh eye. Approach it differently. Place it in a fresh context. Recombine, rethink, "recontextualize." Try to find new linkages, invent new paradigms, put forth audacious new and relevant explanations. The challenge of research and writing is to "push the envelope," to raise new questions, to supply freshness that points in promising new directions.
Beginning to Write
What follows are a number of questions or concerns you should keep in mind as you research, outline, write, and edit an essay. My advice is subjective. Different styles and approaches work for different people. What works for me may merely inhibit you. Retain what's useful, disregard the rest. Most of it, I think is common sense. Much of it comes from standard writing and style books, from friends who teach criticism and composition and from a dozen editors who have ruthlessly criticized, corrected, and generally improved my writing over the years. My emphasis on certain uses and abuses arises out of years of writing and reading student papers.
The most important suggestions are:
Focus and Outline
It helps to have a map of where you're going. If you don't know where you're going, you just may end up there. The moral is important. In the past you may have sat down at your computer and produced a first draft you thought was a final product. Your essay may have been put together by cutting and pasting odd descriptions and definitions and tagging on a rough conclusion. This is unacceptable.
At the very least, prepare a statement of purpose to clarify your objectives. What do you intend to do? Why are you writing on this topic? What's the problem? What is your main theme? Write out, in pen or pencil and in sentence form, each major point you believe is needed to support your thesis. Jot down, under each sentence, the evidence you will use to support your central points. It's often best to do this before you turn on your computer.
You will want to ask yourself more questions as you review and revise your outline. What are my major points or most telling elements of evidence? What are the weak points to my argument? Why do I really care about this topic? Why is it important to me? Will the conclusion flow smoothly from the body of the essay? Have I jumped to conclusions? In short, will my terms and concepts be clear, and will the essay persuade readers or offer a fresh way of seeing something?
An outline is merely a guide, a way of dividing a subject into its major points and subpoints. Your initial outline will change as you do more research and get into your writing. The best outlines grow and become more focused as the writer makes progress. Never let your outline limit or control you; alter it to serve your goals. Still, "to get anywhere, one first has to start. And a good way to start the outline is to jot down quickly . . . the ideas you have about your topic, asking what there is of interest that you want to pass along to the reader."8 Your outline is in part a plan, in part a taking stock of information you have gathered, and in part a way of arranging your material and interpretive analysis in a logical order. An outline helps you avoid writer's block, affirms that you do have something to say, and organizes your writing schedule.
If you use a word processor, watch out for verbosity and overwriting. Don't trust spell checks or thesaurus functions; they are no substitute for your own careful review of your work. Also, spell checks don't catch certain errors. For example, they don't catch punctuation mistakes or differences between such words as principle and principal, or capitol and capital. No word processor can make bad writing good.
Word processors help some people overcome writer's block, by making it easy to pour out ideas. But then editing becomes that much harder.
Write Honestly, with Voice and Power
Once you have sketched an outline, sit down and start writing, or turn on your computer. Put your ideas into words, composing freely. Try shotgun writing, thinking in terms of blocks or chunks of ideas. Your first inclination with words is usually what you really mean. Go back later and search for a better way of saying it. Don't expect to get the vocabulary or flow exactly right on the first try. Concentrate on getting your ideas down in any way you can. Writing technically correct prose about irrelevant ideas is a waste of talent, time, and energy. So focus first on the ideas and revise afterward.
At this stage, it's ok to be sloppy. Make a mess. Who cares? Allow your ideas to begin to take shape. Serious thinking is far more important at this stage than error-free paragraphs. Later you can get them in more concise and elegant form. "If you are like most people, you can't do much precise thinking until you have committed to paper at least a rough sketch of your initial ideas," writes Sylvan Barnet of Tufts University. "Later you can push and polish your ideas into shape, perhaps even deleting all of them and starting over, but it's a lot easier to improve your ideas once you see them in front of you, than it is to do the job in your head. On paper one word leads to another; in your head one word often blocks another."9
Each of us writes with a distinctive flavor and voice. Be yourself. Write from the heart. Some stylists advise writers to place themselves in the background. They contend, with some justification, that writing and talking are two separate modes of communication. A speaker, for example, has a rapport with listeners and takes into account what they already know. Formal writing and putting yourself in the background will work for many of you. It is absolutely required if you are writing for the Yale Law Review or The New England Journal of Medicine. But those who have made political writing into an art have written in their own voice with a compelling political purpose in mind; they exposed lies, drew attention to facts and sought a hearing for their views. Voice is the character and passion of the writer revealed.
When we were little, says Peter Elbow, we had no difficulty sounding the way we felt. Most children speak and write with real voice. But adults often have to work hard to achieve the same honesty. Writing with no voice is lifeless, faceless, and wooden because it lacks sound, rhythm, and individuality. Elbow makes two important points:
Most people's writing lacks voice because they stop so often in mid-sentence and ponder, worry, or change their minds about which word to use or which direction to go in. A few people even speak without voice.
Writing with voice is writing into which someone has breathed. It has that fluency, rhythm, and liveliness that exist naturally in the speech of most people when they are enjoying a conversation. . . .
Writing with real voice has the power to make you pay attention and understandthe words go deep.10
Then Revise, Revise, Revise
Starting to write is the most difficult part of writing for some people. For others, like me, rewriting, revising, and editing are more exacting. If you are not already ruthless about editing, erasing and discarding unnecessary words, get that way. Ask: Can I write it more concisely? If it is possible to cut a word, cut it. Leave out the parts the reader will skip.
Begin the process of revising by reading your early efforts aloud to yourself, your friends, dates, relatives, or anyone you can get to listen. When you read aloud, you invariably hear and see things you may be unable to discern in any other way. The ear catches errors of substance and style the eye misses. Reading aloud also stresses what is important. An effective sentence is partly a matter of cadence and rhythm. Lincoln succeeded so often not only with precision and elegance but also with his uncommon vernacular ease and his rhythmical virtuosity.11 James J. Kilpatrick urges us to "sound out" our sentences and suggests that if a sentence lacks cadence, it collapses like an overcooked souffle. Essential to good writing is a good ear. Listen to your prose. Cultivate the inner ear. Listen to sentences as they break upon the mind.
The writer who learns the knack of balance or of deliberate imbalance; the writer who understands how to quicken his tempo with short words, quick darting words, words that smack and jab; the writer who learns to slow his composition with soft and languorous convolutions; the writer who practices the trick of sentence-endings, striving deliberately for syllables that are accented in a particular way, for the long vowel sound or the shortsuch a writer is on his way toward mastery of a marvelous tool.12
Editing means figuring out what you want to say and saying it. Just as effective leaders avoid wasting people's time, effective writers avoid wordiness. After a draft or two or three, you'll want to get it clear in your head and then rewrite it in the most accurate way. Throw the rest away. Here are some editing suggestions to keep in mind.
Select Your Words Carefully
The most common writing deficiency is an overly casual approach to the use of words. Ask yourself: What is it I'm trying to say? Why am I using this word? Does it look right? Does it sound right? Is there a better word, a fresher way to say it? Is it clear, direct, brief, and bold? Can one word suffice for two or three now used? "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts," advise William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White. "This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."13
In addition to using accurate words you will usually want to use familiar, simple, unadorned words. Simplicity increases readability. Complexity, unorthodox usages, transitional adverbs, and abstract nouns diminish readability.
Strive for lean writing, using simple words. Avoid jargon, pedantry, or foreign phrases designed to show off your erudition. Arrogance pervades the work of certain scholars and professors. The greatest discovery in history is useless if no one understands what it means. One of my students summed it up perfectly: "It is a cardinal sin of so-called "teachers" to write and talk so their students cannot understand themI hate that." There is nothing wrong with using exotic words if they are the best ones to describe what you're talking about; yet if your work is aimed at a lay audience, use words ordinary readers will understand.
Language, however, is a subjective matter. Substituting too many short, conventional words for unusual ones can devitalize the writing. A perennial trade-off exists: clarity and simplicity on the one hand, the use of unusual or stunning words on the other. Over scrupulous editing can make language drab, commonplace, and lifeless. Long paragraphs can work for gifted writers like William Faulkner, and long and unfamiliar words sometimes work as well. Occasionally they fit the meaning best or serve the rhythm of a sentence. But ordinary writers need a reason for their choice. Editing should turn bland, imprecise writing into good writing.
An Associated Press handbook for writers states, "It's hard to see any advantage to long words such as these in the left-hand column," when the ones on the right can do the job:14
deactivate;close, shut off
in consequence of;because
Prize-winning economist John Kenneth Galbraith, author of several best-sellers, says clear writing, something his profession is not especially known for, comes from a commitment to revision. His simple formula: at least five drafts.
To write adequately one must know, above all, how bad are one's first drafts. They are bad because the need to combine composition with thought, both in their own way taxing, leads initially to a questionable, even execrable result. With each revision the task eases, the product improves. Eventually there can be clarity and perhaps even grace. . . . My commitment is to not fewer than five revisions....
I have also been much helped in writing on economics by the conviction that there is no idea associated with the subject that cannot, with sufficient effort, be stated in clear English. The obscurity that characterizes professional economic prose does not derive from the difficulty of the subject. It is the result of incomplete thought; or it reflects a priestly desire to differentiate one's self from the plain world of the layman; or it stems from a fear of having one's inadequacies found out. Nothing so protects error as an absence of readers or understanding.15
Let Verbs and Nouns Do the Work
Short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs are preferable. The challenge is to avoid oversimplification as well as mindless overwriting. Carefully selected verbs and nouns seldom need a string of adjectives and adverbs to amplify their meaning.
Strong verbs (verbs that show action) infuse sentences with life-giving nectar. You can accomplish more with one carefully chosen, vivid, telling verb than with a boxcar full of highfalutin adjectives. A common verb offense committed by writers is the use of the lame verb forms, there is, there are, it is, and it seems where it is impersonal and has no referent. People fall into the habit of using these forms Out Of pure laziness. They are the first and easiest resorts. And the worst. Don't even think of using them. They weaken most, if not all, sentences. And they can almost always be replaced by more telling verbs. Further, using strong verbs rather than these flaccid and unimaginative forms contributes to word economy. Take the following simple yet universally applicable example: "There is one legislator who writes most of the committee's bills and reports." Remove three bland words: there, is and who. Now your sentence reads: "One legislator writes most of the committee's bills and reports." The sentence is now three words shorter and contains a strong verb as its engine.
Active verbs make for vital sentences. An active verb has the person performing the action as its subject, as in "I am voting," or "She leads her team." A passive verb is a form of the "to be" family plus the past participle, as in "The group is being lead by Heather," or "The election results have been Counted." Try: "Heather leads her team," and "They tallied the votes."
The active voice verb provides pace and movement. It uses verbs to push, strike, carry, and persuade. "Joe led the discussion" is strong. "The discussion was led by Joe" is limp. The passive voice makes for sluggish reading. It slows the pace. And the passive voice usually requires the use of more words. "The active voice strikes like a boxer moving forward in attack," writes Theodore M. Bernstein. "The passive voice parries while backpedaling."16
Clear, lean thinking is usually the key to clear, lean writing. Keep complicated constructions and gimmicks to a minimum. The "secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components," writes William Zinsser. "Every word that serves no function, every word that could be a short word, every adverb which carries the same meaning that is already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing whatthese are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence."17
Too many adjectives and adverbs may bog down a paragraph, but a few of them can help clarify exactly what you mean. As a Lee Marvin character in a movie once said, after being scolded for using foul language, "We have darn few words in our language to express ourselves with. We might as well use all of 'em."
Use Qualifiers and Modifiers Sparingly
Be bold. Be definite. Say it in positive form. Take a stand. Avoid using qualifiers: it seems, it appears, very, quite, pretty, rather, definitely, usually, mostly, generally, a lot, all right, some, often, sort of, various, frequently, really, probably, basically, and essentially. Don't even think of using: somewhat unique, very unique, or almost unique. Unique is unique.
Avoid using pretty, really, sort of and similar words as qualifiers of intensity in formal writing. Be careful not to confuse qualifiers of size (huge, tremendous) with qualifiers of intensity (significant, important).
A qualifier is necessary, of course, if a statement or partial evidence is open to doubt and hence an occasional perhaps or reportedly or on the whole has to be used. Also restrain the temptation to hedge with, if only, moreover, furthermore, the fact that, it is believed that, it is sometimes said that, on one hand, however, that which, notwithstanding, and to the contrary notwithstanding.
Beware of Unnecessary Words and "Doubleheaders"
Edit out the clutter. Strike of all in First of all. Replace end result with result, serious crisis with crisis, true facts with facts, personal beliefs with beliefs, free gift with gift, and single-most with single. Delete the together in "The team gathered together." Delete the very in "Susan is a very strong leader." The word very weakens the word strong, just as the word pretty weakens the word red in "The brick building is pretty red." "He would claim that running is easier than swimming" is better written, "He claims running is easier than swimming." "My visit to China will always be remembered by me" is improved by, "I will always remember my visit to China." Use thus instead of thusly, now instead of currently or presently, met instead of held a meeting, agreed instead of reached an agreement, because instead of due to the fact that, public works instead of infrastructure.
Avoid overused words. Instead of saying a point is important, exciting, obvious, or clear, just make it so. Clichés and tired, colorless words make even the freshest ideas and prose seem stale. The joy of writing is getting it right, making it come alive, and communicating it in as lively a way as possible.
Also, avoid telling us what you are about to tell us. Just say it! Impeach wordy introductions such as it is interesting to note that, also important is the fact that, therefore it seems that, I would at this juncture of my paper. . . , it is now time for this writer to admit her own. . . , the thesis here is that. . . , and the point I want to make here is that we. . . , be that as it may. . . , and in conclusion. Banish history tells us and at this point in time. Political scientist Stanley Kelley adds, "Do not say that further research is needed. It always is."18
Curb phrasing that makes repetition necessary to keep the sentence on track; strings of nouns depending on one another; prepositions, conjunctions and adverbial expressions made up of two or more words: with reference to, in conjunction with, in terms of, in the event that, in the nature of, as to whether, in lieu of, in relation to. Often a single, one-syllable word will do: in, with, for.
Avoid "doubleheaders": beck and call, bound and determined, safe and sound, clear and simple, nuts and bolts, full and complete, first and foremost, hope and trust, each and every, fair and just. See if one word won't say it all. "Lawyers love paired words with related meanings, like null and void, part and parcel, aid and abet, sum and substance, irrelevant and immaterial." laments Rene Cappon. But these doubleheaders are "kissing cousins of redundancies."19 Legal writing rarely wins prizes for readability.
Avoid "Twinkie" Words
A "twinkie" word takes its meaning from junk food, which has little or no substance or nutrition. My nominations for twinkie awards are: needless to say, to say the least, interesting, nice, meaningful, exciting, hopefully, key, insightful, great, there are, there is, there was, and so forth, and the like, and so on, crucial, drastic, stimulating, sensitive, and parameter. Most are good words, yet they have been spoiled by excessive and careless use until they have become hollow.
Don't use jargon. Adding -wise and -ize to the end of words may be fashionable, but it undermines clarity. The Suffix -wise has a place in established forms like clockwise, otherwise, and like-wise, but adding it to nouns to indicate in relation to is sloppy thinking and writing. Made-up words like politicswise, P.R.-wise, leadershipwise, policywise, datawise, and mediawise are unpleasant to the eye as well as to the ear.
Although finalize, prioritize, divisionalize, definitize, analogize, and bureaucratize are formed by the same process that created the acceptable popularize, concertize, and modernize, I still object to them. Better words can be employed. For finalize, try complete, conclude, or end. Beware of being a wiseacre or izeguy.
Please also avoid trendy words like scenario, input, interface, impact, effectuate, bottom line, awesome, and political actors.
For most of us, English is the only language we'll ever use when writing. Learn its rules of grammar and syntax. Master them. Learn to spell.
I'm mildly dyslexic, and I prize the saying that only creative people can spell a word three different ways. Still, when in doubt, I look it tip. Bad spelling and grammar imply a writer who is lazy or indifferent to the reader. Worse, by calling attention to themselves, bad spelling and grammar also internist the flow of ideas. Readers won't stick with a careless writer.
One of my pet peeves is the too-casual use of feel. Be careful not to use feel when you mean believe, consider, think.
The word but is commonly misused when yet is more appropriate. But cancels what you have just said. Yet is used when you are merely adding to what you have said or want a softer reversal than but. Yet can mean nevertheless, too. "The candidate said he was going to win, but the campaign is now over and the ticket came in second." Fine. "The candidate is not sure she can use Jack Jones as a pollster for this campaign, yet she believes Jones is a gifted opinion analyst." Fine.
The thoughtful writer is aware of the distinction between which and that, and uses these pronouns with precision. Which adds further information about the noun. For example, "The party, which was defeated, Pulled itself together and prepared to wait until next time." Here the which explains something, about the party and helps readers understand the context of why the party needed to pull itself together.
That restricts the meaning of the noun and makes it more specific. "The party that was defeated pulled itself together and prepared to win next time." In this sentence, a that clause defines the particular party the writer is talking about; it was not the victorious party that pulled itself together but the defeated party. It is not just any party, but a specific party.
A good rule is: if commas can be inserted around the clause, the correct word to use is which. Which is a bit more formal than that, and many writers prefer thats to whiches for readability and flow. Good writers, however, avoid both words. Thus, it is better to revise the sentence above to read: "The defeated party pulled itself together and prepared to win next time." That can be deleted in about one-third of its appearances. "He said that it was expensive" is crisper when written, "He said it's expensive." If you have a sentence with these pronouns, challenge yourself to rewrite and eliminate them. You'll find "whichless" and "thatless" sentences are almost always shorter and more readable. Try writing complete letters and essays without themand congratulate yourself if you succeed.
Take special care when using this. Pronouns refer to other nouns. Some students use this to refer to everything they just said. As in "This explains why George Bush lost the election." Such usage confuses rather than clarifies. The careful writer avoids sentences beginning with this. They almost always lessen readability and flow.
Use gender-inclusive language. All executives aren't men, nor are all of those who fish or put out fires. Instead of fireman, try firefighter. Use plural forms to avoid sexist language. Instead of "A president will use his veto power," try "Presidents use their veto power." Human being, humankind, person and people are all proper substitutes for man and mankind.
Additional Style Suggestions
I like reading forcefully argued papers, yet I dislike hyperbole and overstatement. Effective writers learn the right balance and know that overstatement usually hurts their case.
Use contractions when writing conversational prose. People do it all the time when they speak, so it makes for natural, readable writing. Write as you speakunless of course you mumble or your everyday talk is incomprehensible. Contractions, however, are often unacceptable in formal writing. A careful writer knows how to get the fight voice and when contractions are inappropriate.
Use the exclamation point sparingly; once a paper is enough! Overuse robs it of its force. Avoid underlining, italicizing, and boldfacing for the same reason. A well-constructed sentence creates its own natural emphasis.
Phrases or words in parentheses disrupt the flow, as do dashes and hyphenated words. One critic assails the overuse of hyphens as "hyphenitis." A hyphen, however, can avoid ambiguity and make life easier for your readers. Sometimes hyphens are essential to understanding. Do you mean an old film buff or an old-film buff? In general avoid hyphens. When in doubt, consult the dictionary or the Chicago Manual.
Vary the length of sentences and paragraphs, and vary how you begin sentences. If all Your sentences have ten words and all your paragraphs ten sentences, you'll bore your reader. Try an occasional one- or two-sentence paragraph. Variety, counterpoint, and change grab the reader's attention. Write directly to your reader. Keep your audience in mind, and awake. Nothing bores a reader more than a string of paragraphs beginning "Harry Truman said . . . ," "Harry Truman declared . . . ," "Harry Truman noted . . . ," "President Truman pointed out . . . ," "As Truman wrote . . . ," or "There was . . . ," "There are . . . ," "There is . . . ," "There were . . . ," Recommendation: Diversify. Innovate. Market your ideas.
Tables and Numbers
Use tables only when necessary. Sometimes, of course, they are. I like tables and visual displays of data. Yet readers have a tendency to skip past them, viewing them as intrusions or merely as evidence for a point the author makes in the prose. Try summarizing the contents of a table in prose and showing it in an especially attractive visual (as in USA Today) so it can be grasped at a glance.
As a rule, tables or figures should stand on their own. They should be understandable to the reader who has not yet read the narrative. The meaning of numbers should be clear. Yet tables and graphs shouldn't be relied on to make a point not already made in the text; they should only amplify a point.
Write out numbers from one to nine, except when using percentages. Thus it is 44 percent, eight vetoes, 62 legislative measures, 10 court rulings, and 3,000 words. Spell out a number when it begins a sentence. Spell out the words percent except in tables, when the % symbol is proper. Ordinal numbers are spelled out, as in the twentieth century, the top one-tenth of the population. Legislative sessions and dates use numbers: 103rd Congress and January 20, 1993.
Make sure your numbers add up correctly in all tables and charts. Writers often have a difficult time with numbers; errors, especially in percentages, easily creep into books and reports.
Criteria and data are the plural of criterion and datum and require plural verbs. Media is also plural.
Quotations and Citations
Use quotations selectively. Few observations are truly original. The use of too many quotations conceals from the reader what you know and what you think. Quotations interrupt the flow just as readily as too many tables, parentheses, or foreign phrases.
After you have read widely on a topic, you develop a sense of what is common knowledge. Dictionary definitions, the date of Picasso's death, Dwight Eisenhower's golf hobby, or Ronald Reagan's career in Hollywood do not need to be cited or quoted from other sources. Paraphrase agreed-on definitions and common knowledge. Put them in your own words. If you know something, you can say it just as well as someone else did, and adopt the explanation to suit your purposes. You will probably shorten it as well. You can still give proper credit to the author who inspired your thoughts. Here's a good rule: Reserve quotations for material that is colorful, opinionated, or otherwise distinctive.
If you use a quotation that runs more than seven lines in your typescript, set it off as a block quotation. Indent it several spaces from the left margin of the text, and single space it. Block quotations don't need quotation marks. Keep in mind, however, that most of us skip over or let our eyes dance past block quotations. Shortening them so that they're integrated into the text ensures your reader's attention.
Another trick to induce the reader to stay with you is to identify the author in the middle of a quotation rather than in the more traditional beginning or ending tag. Instead of "As E. B. White aptly puts it. . . ," try: "I suppose I have written the fact that a thousand times in the heat of composition, revised it out maybe five hundred times in the cool aftermath," writes E. B. White. "To be batting only .500 this late in the season, to fail half the time to connect with this fat pitch, saddens me, for it seems a betrayal of [my mentor] who showed me how to swing at it and made the swinging seem worth while."20
Keep note cards or a journal of quotations you might later decide to use in your writing. Take down the author's words accurately, and record the source in full. Countless errors occur in quotations and citations, and retracing your steps to correct them is both time consuming and frustrating at this late stage in your work.
As a general rule, give credit to the appropriate sources for direct quotations and the distinctive ideas you paraphrase from others. The more you write, however, the more you will want to skip the verbose quotes you may have cited when you were less well read. Learn to be selective: "The art of handling quotes comes down to knowing when to quote, when to paraphrase, when to forget the whole thing."21
Plagiarism is copying part or all of another's work without citing the source. It can also refer to using someone's phrasing and ideas without proper citation or credit for the source. Plagiarism, both accidental and intended, occurs all too frequently, both in college and in professional life.
Titles, Leads, and Conclusions
Put effort and imagination into coming up with an apt, and if possible, intriguing title. An effective title telegraphs your theme and arouses interest.
Your essay's first few sentences are more important than any others. If your first paragraph doesn't interest readers enough to proceed to the second, you might as well stop right there. An effective lead signals your thesis and hooks readers with a few calculated teasers. As they look at your title and leading sentences, readers are asking: What's the big idea? Where is this writer going? What's in this for me?
Reporters devote considerable energy to getting their story leads accurate and jazzy. Why? Most readers never get beyond the first two paragraphs of most stories in newspapers and magazines. If journalists grab your attention up front, they at least have a chance to hold your interest for the duration.
The lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading. It must cajole him with freshness or novelty or paradox, or with humor, or with surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question. Anything will do as long as it nudges his curiosity and tugs at his sleeve.
Next the lead must do some real work. it must provide a few hard details that tell the reader why the piece was written and why he ought to read it. But don't dwell on the reason. Coax the reader a little more; keep him inquisitive.22
Although news writing is different from college essays, corporate reports, or public policy papers, introductions in every form of writing are important. Students have the good fortunealthough they might quibble at this descriptionthat professors are paid to read student papers from start to finish even if the leads aren't arresting. Yet duty doesn't guarantee interest. Students must make a case for the significance of their essays at the outset.
Often good leads can't be written until the essay is finished. Try writing several leads after you've finished your first draft. Don't be too quick to settle on the first one. Let the lead emerge from your work. Let your imagination roam.
For long papersover 20 pagessubtitles or subheadings are helpful in indicating transitions to new material or new sections. Subheads can add to a paper's readability and, cleverly used, can save words. As most college writing assignments are five to 15 pages, however, and focus on a few major points, subheadings and section breaks may not be unnecessary. Beware of using them as a crutch to avoid writing necessary, yet difficult, transitions.
Conclusions should flow from the rest of the paper. They don't need signals like in conclusion or in summary. They should tie ideas together, not simply restate what already has been said. Nor should they introduce new topics or information. The best conclusions explore the significance of the ideas in the essay, sometimes by making recommendations.
Begin to write early enough so you have plenty of time to revise and proofread. If you can, put your edited draft aside, and reread it after it has receded a bit from memory. A later, detached reading will be as revealing as it is rewarding. Gaps between what you wrote and what you meant become apparent. Awkward transitions or unnecessary apologies jump out at you. Doubleheaders and twinkies pop up. Proofread your writing twice on your own. Remember the virtues of reading your work aloud. Ask a roommate, relative, or friend to read it too. We all learn from feedback, the positive as much as the critical.
Set high expectations for your research, yet not so high you paralyze your ability to get it done. Perfectionists seldom finish. Some people become so compulsive in the research stage that by the time they are ready to write, their data have become obsolete. "Analysis-paralysis" can undermine an otherwise healthy undertaking.
Pace yourself. Too much time devoted to research often leaves too little for sophisticated writing. An executive friend of mine has a helpful 60 percent rule: Though having all the information would be perfect, having nearly two-thirds of the available information usually ensures making the appropriate decision. The 60-percent rule may not be appropriate for all writers: many undergraduate papers are underresearched and appear allergic to substance.
Few scholars can obtain all the data, all the interviews, and all the evidence they'd like to have before making judgments. Executives or writers who wait for 100 percent assurances will probably still be waiting long after it has been worth the effort. Beware the "ready, aim-aim-aim" syndrome. Writers must be willing to make decisions, come to judgment, and write. Impose smart goals and realistic deadlines, and schedule sensible cutoffs. Reward yourself handsomely on meeting these. Give it your best, yet be prepared to move on to the next stage of your work.
Good writers invent their own rules and conveniently ignore traditional usage and style if these impede their writing. Mark Twain broke some rules and told his stories with poetic and lyric descriptions, similes and colloquial turns of speech; Faulkner went on and on and on, and yet he succeeded because he made his long sentences sing and his paragraphs dance. Walt Whitman was a congenital rule-breaker. Hemingway redefined lean writing.
Yet even the great ones acknowledge at least a few basic guidelines. To be good, you have to read and observe a lot. To write well you have to revise and revise. "I began to write seriously when I had taught myself the discipline necessary to achieve what I wanted," observes the gifted novelist Bernard Malamud. "When I touched that time, my words announced themselves to me." Revision, he notes, became not only essential but also one of the exquisite pleasures of writing. He would write everything three times: once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, "and a third time to say what it still must say."23
Writing is a performing art. Yet unlike music, drama, or sports, no conductor, director or coach leads Your reader through the performance. Word selection and punctuation are the only aids suggesting how fast or slow or loud the writing should be. Reading is a solitary, detached experience. Your writing must be its own conductor and coach. Unworthy writing repels and confuses. Dull or devitalized writing confines the reader. Active, lean, clear writing, on the other hand, informs, persuades, entertains, empowers, liberates.24 Understand that it depends on you.
In the long run, learning to conduct research and to write well are highly correlated with extensive reading of carefully executed research projects and good writing. If you want to become an effective writer, read classics, read great books, as many as possible, as soon as possible. Also read well-written, well-edited magazines, such as The New Yorker, The Economist, and The New Republic. Keep a journal with your own comments on fine writing and what you like and dislike. Start a collection of words you want to use. Collect quotations and good short stories, too. Heighten Your awareness about the power of words.
Adopt gifted writers as your remote mentors. Regularly read your favorite writers, columnists, and social scientists. If you have no favorites, may I suggest, Jefferson, Emerson, Lincoln, Twain, Churchill, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Russell Baker, Saul Bellow, Raymond Carver, Robertson Davies, Nadine Gordimer, Anthony Lewis, William Manchester, David McCullough, David Broder, John McPhee, Clinton Rossiter, William Safire, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Lewis Thomas, Calvin Trillin, Barbara Tuchman, John Updike, Eudora Welty, Molly Ivins, George Will, and Garry Wills. Also read the Latin writers Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Manual Puig. Read their earlier works. Discover why they are so good. Try a little reverse engineering. Do they follow a clear, logical outline? How do they structure it? How do they capture your attention? flow do they marshal evidence? What do they do to simplify, clarify, convince, and persuade?
Hemingway said the way a young writer learns the craft was to go away and write. Yet Hemingway grew up on a steady diet of Mark Twain and other notable essayists. And after World War I, he went to Paris for free tutorial sessions with Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson. Every writer profits from sharing work with others and going over it, line by line, with mentors.
Most important, the younger writer must find voice, purpose, and inner drive. "What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art," writes George Orwell. "Looking back," he adds, "I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally."25 To write honestly, with power, voice and courage, you will have to recognize and rely on your basic values. You will have to write from the "inside out" rather than the "outside in."
Here are the questions readers will ask about your writing: Does it have character, unity, and integrity? Does it have a clear beginning, a meaty middle, and a sound conclusion? Is it well researched and well written? Does it have something new and fresh to say? Did it persuade? Did you learn and display this learning? Did I learn?
One last thought. If you have important ideas or feelings to share, writing badly is better than not writing at all. Most of us are prisoners of compulsive teachers in our past who railed against sloppy sentences and couldn't have cared less about what we were trying to say.26 What we have to say is more important than the search for the perfect sentence. What's the use of elegant writing wholly devoid of ideas? This problem reminds me of the person who could speak fluently in seven languages, yet had nothing to say in any of them.
Writing matters. But what matters even more is the power of your ideas. Be brave. Writing is invariably an act of courage. Just as our leaders define, defend, and promote values, so also writers help define and clarify critical choices. Writing is a grand opportunity to tell your story, to tell the truth about yourself, to advocate your beliefs, and to share your creative ideas about your community, your nation, your world. A writer writes to understand, to teach, to persuade, to celebrate, to criticize, to lead, to improve and to tell useful stories.
Although writing can and should be liberating, exhilarating, and exacting, it never gets easier. The more you know and the better your writing becomes, the more options open up and the higher your standards become. Remember that excellence, not perfection, is the goal. Remember, too, the old adage: No piece of work is ever entirely finished, only abandoned.
*An earlier version of this essay was published in NEWS for Teachers of Political Science (Spring 1986). Back to reference
1. Kurt Vonnegut, " How to Write with Style," Newsweek on Campus, April 1987, pp. 5455. Back to reference
2. Pico Iyer, "In Praise of the Humble Comma," Time, June 13, 1988, p. 80. Back to reference
3. Somerset Maughan, quoted in James Charlton and Lisbeth Mark, The Writer's Home Companion (New York: Franklin Watts, 1987), p. 77. See also George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," originally written in 1946; reprinted in George Orwell, The Orwell Reader (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956), pp. 355366. Back to reference
4. Ernest Hemingway, excerpts from letters to friends, in Larry W. Phillips, ed., Ernest Hemingway on Writing (New York: Scribner's, 1984), p. 77. Back to reference
5. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize address, 1970, in John Hersey, ed., The Writer's Craft (New York: Knopf, 1974), pp. 142, 148 and 151. Back to reference
6. David Pion-Berlin, "Reflections on Writing a Dissertation," P.S. (Winter 1986), p. 64. Back to reference
7. For more on this topic, see Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970). Follow the lead of Columbus, Galileo, and Darwin. Back to reference
8. Kate L. Turabian, Student's Guide for Writing College Papers, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), p. 40. Back to reference
9. Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing about Art, 2d ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1985), p. 74. Back to reference
10. Peter Elbow, Writing with Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 299. Back to reference
11. Jacques Barzun, "Lincoln the Writer," in his On Writing, Editing and Publishing, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 81. Back to reference
12. James J. Kilpatrick, The Writer's Art (Kansas City: Andrews, McMeel and Parker, 1984), p. 54. Back to reference
13. William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 3d ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1979), p. 23. Back to reference
14. Rene J. Cappon, The Word: An Associated Press Guide to Good News Writing (New York: Associated Press, 1982), p. 22. Back to reference
15. John Kenneth Galbraith, A Life in Our Times: Memoirs (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), pp. 53536. Back to reference
16. Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to Usage (New York: Atheneum, 1965), p. 140. Back to reference
17. William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 2d ed. (New York: Haper and Row, 1980), pp. 78. Back to reference
18. Stanley Kelley, Jr., "Some Suggestions for Writing Term Papers. Politics 31IParty Politics," mimeographed handout for his Princeton University advisees, p. 5. Back to reference
19. Cappon, The Word, p. 110. Back to reference
20. E. B. White, intro. to Strunk and White, Elements of Style, 3d ed., p. xiv. Back to reference
21. Cappon, The Word, p. 71. Back to reference
22. Zinsser, On Writing Well, p. 60. See also Marshall Cook, "How to Write Good Article Leads," Writer, June 1987, pp. 1618. Back to reference
23. Bernard Malamud, "Reflections of a Writer," talk at Bennington College, October 30, 1984 in, The New York Times Book Review, March 20, 1988, p. 18. Back to reference
24.2I am indebted to David N. Lowland for ideas in this paragraph as well as for other editorial suggestions. Back to reference
25. George Orwell, "Why I Write," 1946, quoted in Bernard Crick, George Orwell (Boston: AtlanticLittle, Brown, 1980), p. xiii. Back to reference
26. Bruce Ballenger, "The Importance of Writing Badly," Christian Science Monitor, March 28, 1990, p. 16. Back to reference
Accentuate the Positive: Presenting Your Paper
Take your reader into account. It pays to ask in advance if your intended reader has specific format rules. You'll be surprised at the varying quirks and pet peeves professors have.
Here are a set of suggestions I share with students. Sure, they are simple, commonsense guidelines. And yes, most students already know them; yet what students know they ought to do and what they do are not necessarily the same.
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© 1993 by Thomas E. Cronin
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About the Author:
Thomas E. Cronin is McHugh Professor of American Institutions and Leadership, The Colorado College, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80903. Cronin is the author of several books, including Direct Democracy: The Politics of the Initiative, Referendum and Recall (Harvard University Press, 1989); Inventing the American Presidency (Kansas, 1989) and The State of the Presidency (Little, Brown, 1980). He is co-author of the best-selling college text on American government, Government by the People (Prentice-Hall, 1993), and co-author of Colorado Politics and Government (University of Nebraska Press, 1993).