“Police said the homeowner was shot and killed after being transported to an area hospital in serious condition.”
“Vigorous writing is concise,” wrote author E.B. White in his invaluable book, The Elements of Style. But concise writing is extremely difficult. A friend of mine who teaches writing at a university told me that she considers herself to be a competent writer–until she’s required to cut things down to 500 words or less.
Recently I stumbled across a music critic, Robert Christgau, who writes “capsule reviews” of popular music for The Village Voice and more recently, Barnes & Noble. These capsules are never more than a paragraph long, but Christgau’s prose is so spare and yet so evocative that readers get everything they need in that small space.
Here’s his review of Robin Thicke’s “Sex Therapy”:
An amusing fellow getting her into bed, kind of a bore when he’s done, and what else is new?
The Killers’ “Hot Fuss” merits:
If only A Flock of Seagulls could do their hair.
Mercifully, he doesn’t write anything about records he rates “bombs.”
Lest anyone think he saves his best writing for negative reviews, take a look at this review of Poly Styrene’s 2011 CD “Generation Indigo”:
Life after “Oh Bondage Up Yours” began with Poly’s dreamily unpunk 1980 studio-rock Translucence, a sui generis switcheroo absurdly accused of presaging Everything but the Girl. Now there’ll be claims her easy-skanking groove is a “dubstep” breakthrough, once again obscuring the main reason her music has connected since she wore braces, which is that it’s exceptionally tuneful, if not the main reason we care, which is that she’s an exceptionally good soul. She never tops the vegan opener “I Luv Ur Sneakers.” But the four humanist protest songs she rolls out just before an unnecessarily dreamy closer seem so unforced you feel for all those who have striven so hard to do nothing more. Ari, Viv, Exene–because sisterhood is powerful, this one’s for you.
In one elegantly constructed paragraph, Christgau summarizes Styrene’s career from early punk icon to her abrupt but “dreamily unpunk switcheroo” to her final album (she died of cancer a month after its release); describes the musical style of the CD; and gives a moving tribute to her “exceptionally good soul” while placing her in context (sisterhood) with the great women of punk music–and he still manages to review the CD. He makes it look so easy, so unforced, damn him.
But it’s not unforced, and it’s definitely not easy. His review of a Weezer album yields this description of the punk ethic, which applies just as well to his prose:
[The album] totally misses the point, which from the Ramones to the Libertines has been to achieve concision and economy while just barely remaining erect. Onstage, that is. How Cuomo has comported himself in other areas of endeavor I haven’t a clue.
As with punk music, it’s the concision and economy that make his prose work. He writes in one book review that good writing “achieves lucidity and a serviceable grace,” but great writing can “have the impact of revelation among the uninitiated” and give them a “sense of discovery.” Christgau almost always transcends the ordinary.
I really work hard to approach that kind of brevity and depth of meaning, but it’s very difficult to achieve, and I rarely get anywhere close. Nathaniel Hawthorne once said that “easy reading is damn hard writing”; it takes a lot of effort to make your writing seem effortless. I’ve appreciated the compliments I’ve received for my book’s writing style, but that took a lot of work: I wrote the initial “draft” of blog posts in 5 weeks, and then I spent 6 months editing and rewriting. Recently a reviewer (and friend) lamented that I didn’t spell everything out in the book and spoke disapprovingly of the spare prose style. He thought I might be offended, but I was thrilled. I understand a lot of people won’t like my approach to writing, but his review told me I’d done what I’d set out to do. But I can’t do that all the time, no matter how hard I try.
If you want to understand how hard it is to do what Christgau does, try this exercise: Pick anything you really like (an activity, film, food, music, or anything else) and try to explain why you like it in 200 words or less.
I’ve been through this before, as the high-tech industry is notorious for a lot of turnover, so I’m not particularly stressed. More annoyed, really. I was just starting to feel like I was almost ready for Christmas, and now I’ll be spending all my free time looking for a job.
The good news is that I have two months of paid employment plus 5 weeks of severance, and my insurance is good until the end of February. Fortunately, we had time to sign up for my wife’s insurance, which she has always declined in favor of mine. Ironically, I will almost certainly receive a healthy bonus check as I leave the building because our larger division has done extremely well this year.
Needless to say, we are going to be extremely frugal over the next few months. I feel bad for the people who’ve never been through this before. There were some very stressed faces today. One guy said he’s not going to tell his wife until after Christmas so she won’t worry. Big mistake, IMO.
So, my resume is out again. I had updated it a couple of months ago because I was worried that the company was in trouble. When I took this job, my wife made me promise we wouldn’t go anywhere for 5 years, which I reached in July (I got a plaque, a lapel pin, and a fishing pole).
I think I would have been more stressed if they had just walked us out of the building, as has happened to me before. So, wish me luck. In a twisted way, it’s nice to have a dose of perspective.
A lot of blogs out there deal with writing, and I hope this one will not just add to the clutter. Blogs about writing tend to focus on one of two areas:
1. How to write “literature,” as in novels, poetry, plays, and films.
2. How to become a professional technical writer.
This blog is for a different audience: people who are not professional writers but whose jobs require them to produce good-quality technical or business writing. Most professional jobs require some writing, whether it’s a report to a supervisor, a letter to a colleague or customer, or documentation when the company needs it. My blog will not be about how to become a professional writer or editor but instead will give helpful instructions and tips for those who have been forced against their will to be at least part-time writers.
So, who am I to give advice or instruction about writing? Here are some of my qualifications:
I have a master’s degree in English, with an emphasis in rhetoric, from Brigham Young University. During my undergraduate studies, I worked as an instructor and tutor in BYU’s reading/writing center. My supervisor recommended me as a tutor for graduate students in the Communications Department, which I did through my senior year. (Needless to say, the Communications grad students weren’t happy to be taking advice from an undergrad English major.)
During graduate school, I taught composition and technical writing to undergraduate students, I took a course in software documentation for which I produced a manual for a university-authored, networked-computer application.
I then received an award as the outstanding first-year student in our department, and then I did a paid internship as an editor at the largest corporation in the state of Utah. After a year managing a team of technical writers at a software company, I was hired by the corporation where I had done my internship as a full-time editor. Since that time, I have spent more than twenty years as a technical writer and editor in industries ranging from computer software and academic publishing to the oil and gas industry. I have been asked by my employers on many occasions to present seminars, lectures, and formal course on effective writing. I am also a member of the Society for Technical Communication, and I have given lectures and seminars for the society and served as a judge for technical writing competitions.
In my spare time, I’ve written peer-reviewed articles for scholarly and technical journals and have published an award-winning memoir, Heaven Up Here. I still do freelance technical writing and editing on request, but my intent here is to help people learn to communicate more effectively through writing. If you have any requests for topics, please leave a comment, and I’ll try to put together something useful.
You’ll find the new blog at http://thewriteauthority.wordpress.com/.
Richard Packham, the founder of the Exmormon Foundation, has reviewed my book, Heaven Up Here, for the Association for Mormon Letters. Thank you, Richard, for taking the time to read and review the book. I continue to be quite gratified by the responses I’ve received:
It may seem as if I’m picking on the Deseret News, but then I do read the Utah papers every day because I live here. It’s not my fault that the DesNews tends to publish more egregiously bad writing than does the Salt Lake Tribune.
Anyway, yesterday Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas swore in Tom Lee as a justice of the Utah Supreme Court. It seems that after law school, Lee clerked for Thomas, and DesNews writer Jamshid Ghazi Askar’s article allows Lee to gush about Thomas and Thomas to gush about Lee. (I should say at the outset that I don’t know either man, and I’m sure Tom Lee is qualified to be a Supreme Court justice. My quarrel isn’t with the subjects of the article but rather with the writing.)
So, we start with a riveting headline: “New Utah justice has bond with U.S. justice.” Granted, this isn’t a headline that would attract a lot of attention, but maybe it was meant to indicate a low-key approach to the topic. I’ll let you be the judge of that.
Here’s the opening line: “Today, when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Thomas R. Lee face each other with right arms raised, the former will swear in the latter to the Utah Supreme Court.” Fair enough. That is how justices are sworn in, but then we don’t really need to know the mechanics of it (does anyone think they face away from each other, arms flailing?).
“In person and on paper, the two men couldn’t be more different.” OK, what the hell is that supposed to mean? The following paragraph explains, and it’s such a thing of beauty it needs to be appreciated one sentence at a time.
“A receding gray hairline caps Thomas’ dark brown face.” The contrast of colors is kind of nice, though Askar seems to want to say, “Thomas is black,” without actually saying so. And how can something that is receding “cap” anything?
“He is shorter than most men, even though at 62 years old vestiges of a powerful build remain hewn to his frame.” Oh, dear. I’m trying to imagine how a vestige can be anything but old. And how is a build “hewn” to a frame? Hewing refers to chopping or cutting, often to give shape to something. So, he’s telling us that Thomas’s build was chopped to his frame, which makes no sense at all. For that matter, what’s the difference between a build and a frame? I don’t know, but maybe if you hew a frame, you’re left with a build.
“His father abandoned him before he turned 2 years old; his lone surviving sibling lives in rural Georgia and soaks up hours of daytime television each and every weekday.” I love the image of someone soaking up soap operas and The Price Is Right “each and every weekday”; if he had written just “each,” I for one wouldn’t have guessed it was also “every weekday.” And one wonders what Thomas’s TV-addict brother does on weekends. Maybe he teaches at a university or plays a local blues bar.
But it gets better when Askar describes Lee. “In stark contrast, Lee looks like central casting’s version of a Nordic god: tall, pale, lean and angular.” OK, we get it: Thomas is black, short, and kind of pudgy, whereas Lee is white, tall, and thin (but does he look like a Nordic god to you? For comparison, this is the guy who will be playing Nordic god Thor in an upcoming film). Any “central casting” agent who hired Tom Lee to play a Nordic god would probably get fired in short order.
And then we get this: “His father, Rex E. Lee, blazed a trail to the pinnacle of prominence and lawyerly notoriety as the founding dean of BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, solicitor general of the United States during the Reagan administration and the 10th president of BYU.” So much to digest: blazing trails to “the pinnacle of prominence” (lovely alliteration) and “lawyerly notoriety” before we actually hear what his accomplishments were.
Then Askar contrasts Thomas’s shiftless brother with Lee’s driven sibling: “Lee’s brother, Mike Lee, can often be found pounding the pavement out on the campaign trail as the heavy favorite to be Utah’s next U.S. senator.” So many hackneyed phrases: “pounding the pavement,” “out on the campaign trail,” “heavy favorite.” But Mike Lee is only campaigning “often.” I wonder what he does with his spare time? Maybe he watches The View with Justice Thomas’s brother.
“And yet, despite all their differences, Justice Thomas and soon-to-be Justice Lee share such a close bond that they’re practically family.” Ah, there’s the bond part, and it’s even “close.” And who would have imagined that too such different guys (the short but vestigially powerful “dark brown” man and the “pale” Nordic god) would be so close?
“The story of Thomas and Lee began back in 1993.” This sentence amounts to, “In 1993,” but our author is clearly not interested in introductory clauses unless they carry the rhetorical weight of “In start contrast” or “And yet, despite their differences” (a twofer, as it were).
“Lee was two years removed from law school at the University of Chicago, and Thomas summoned Lee to his chambers for a one-on-one interview to determine if Lee would be one of the four clerks Thomas hired for the 1994-95 Supreme Court term.” Essentially, he’s describing a job interview for a clerkship, but instead we have Lee “summoned” to Thomas’s “chambers,” which I guess is supposed to sound more ominous and impressive, akin to Thomas More standing for truth and right before the English Court. (Of course, the image that popped into my head was that of George Costanza being lectured by the back of George Steinbrenner’s head, but I digress.)
I’ll spare you Lee’s report of the interview, but it’s in keeping with the tone of the article. Suffice it to say that from that one hour, he felt drawn to Thomas (whom he describes as “warm, generous, kind, fun-loving, [and] wonderful. … (My) desire (and) longing to clerk for him was [sic] magnified tenfold”). But back to the author.
“As Thomas pointed out, the location of that 1993 meeting held special significance for Lee. Following the retirement of Justice Byron White from the Supreme Court earlier that year, Thomas had recently moved into the former chambers of White — the same justice for whom Lee’s father served a Supreme Court clerkship in the 1960s.”
That last sentence is a doozy. The long introductory clause is followed by “Thomas had recently moved into the former chambers of White,” which seems to loop back awkwardly to make sure we know it’s White’s chambers we’re talking about (as opposed to, say, the chamber of secrets or the Orem Chamber of Commerce). Then we are told–after a superfluous dash–that Lee’s father had clerked for White in the sixties; we need to be told this was a “Supreme Court” clerkship so that we don’t assume Rex Lee was doing a 7-11 clerkship for Justice White.
Then it’s Thomas’s turn to gush about Lee: “very conscientious, very serious, honest to a fault, a nice guy, and smart and precise in his words.” And in case we missed it the first time, the author includes Thomas’s restatement of whom Rex Lee had clerked for in “those very same chambers.”
“During their year together at the Supreme Court, Thomas educated Lee and his three fellow clerks about how to be effective jurists.” Yep, that’s part of being a clerk.
Next: “Thomas also steeped them in the sagacious nuggets of wisdom he had gleaned from his grandfather, Myers Anderson, and which would eventually be a basis for Thomas’ 2007 memoir, ‘My Grandfather’s Son.'” Dear God, make it stop. How in the hell do you steep someone in nuggets, let alone sagacious ones? And since when does someone glean nuggets? And am I the only one who noticed that the author uses the possessive apostrophe without a following ‘s,’ a style choice usually reserved only for Jesus? Maybe he’s subtly expressing what he thinks of Justice Thomas. But all that aside, I don’t know why we’re being told that Thomas shared his wisdom with his clerks, which he “gleaned” from his grandfather and then wrote down in a book. It almost sounds as if Thomas was using his clerks as a preview audience for his book.
“The relationship between Thomas and Lee inexorably changed in 1996 when Lee’s father passed away following a prolonged bout with cancer.” ‘Inexorably’ is clearly the wrong word here, as it means ‘relentlessly,’ not permanently or drastically, as the author appears to mean. And why reduce Rex Lee’s courageous and excruciatingly long illness to a “bout,” as if he had just been fighting off a cold?
“At that point, Thomas began filling a more active mentoring role for his one-time clerk.” Now we get two paragraphs from Lee explaining how Justice Thomas has become a close friend, confidant, and adviser.
Then the money question: “So what was Thomas’ advice last year about the idea that comes to fruition today as Lee joins the Utah Supreme Court?” Ouch. He inserts “last year” so that we know that the “idea” in question is Lee’s “career decision” to try to get the Supreme Court nomination, which Lee discussed two paragraphs earlier. But even though we haven’t talked about an idea, it’s coming to fruition. After a recitation of some generic platitudes from Lee (“‘He felt that this was something that would be very enriching to me professionally and fulfilling and enjoyable,’ Lee said”), we’re left pondering the little dark brown man steeping a Nordic god in sagacious nuggets of wisdom until an idea comes to fruition. Somehow, watching daytime television each and every day doesn’t sound half bad. Beats reading the Deseret News.
http://mormontimes.com/mormon_voices/je … /?id=14357
It’s been a while since I did one of these, but I do take perverse pleasure in seeing absolute garbage being produced by professional writers (and getting past their editors). Anyway, this is Jerry Johnston’s second appearance. I note that I saw this article through a link on John Dehlin’s Facebook wall (he said he thought the article seemed a bit paranoid). I’m not going to comment on the thoughts behind the article (such as they are) but rather on the writing.
So, without further ado:
LDS Church battening down hatches
by By Jerry Earl Johnston
So we start off with a nautical metaphor.
Think of the Salt Lake Temple as a designer bottle holding a one-of-a-kind fragrance.
Now we’re switching to perfume in a temple-shaped bottle, a very strange metaphor indeed. In what way is what’s in the temple like a fragrance? Is it ephemeral and easily dissipated? Is it meant to cover one’s bodily odors or attract the opposite sex? I don’t get it. But I guess we’re meant to see something rare and fragile inside a fragile bottle.
Think of the gardens and buildings of Temple Square as bubble wrap around that container.
Who puts bubble wrap around a perfume bottle? And equating fastidiously groomed gardens with cheap plastic material is odd.
Think of the City Creek Center to the south, the Church Plaza to the east, the Conference Center to the north, and the Family History Library and Church History Museum to the west as a firm, sturdy box around all of it.
Buildings as a box doesn’t exactly equate to a ringing endorsement of church architecture. But clumsy as the metaphor is, it’s pretty straightforward: everything around the temple is meant to protect it. Big stretch, if you ask me, but let’s see what he does with it.
When something merits that much protection, you have to figure rough bumps and bounces are coming down the road.
Now we’ve gone from nautical to a well-packed perfume bottle to, apparently, a ride on a bumpy road (well, it stands to reason that dragging a ship along a road would be a bumpy affair).
I get a feeling the LDS Church sees turbulence ahead — nasty weather –and it is making preparations.
Forget the road, now we’re talking weather. The use of “turbulence” suggests a trip by plane. So now we’ve put a perfume bottle in a box on a ship that has been dragged along a road into the cargo bay of an airplane that is now experiencing turbulence. That’s one hell of a metaphorical ride.
It’s not about being defensive and keeping things out.
That much is obvious, given that the perfume bottle is now flying along safely at 30,000 feet.
It’s about being protective and keeping precious things safe.
Such as? He gives us no clue as of yet, except for the vague reference to fragrance. But here we get the first set of paired sentences: “It’s about being” is contrasted with “It’s not about being” in an impressive display of rhetorical skill.
When the chilly winds blow, forest creatures gather all that’s life-sustaining about them.
So, now the plane is being flown by forest creatures? But even following another abrupt metaphor shift, this is a pretty awkward sentence. I think by “about” he means “around”; using “about” suggests that there is something inherently “life-sustaining” about them, which I don’t think he means.
Horses in the fields cluster together to stand against the hail.
OK, why not throw in a few horses?
I feel the LDS Church battening down the hatches for bad weather.
And back to the ship again. And how does one “feel the church” battening hatches? Seems like a “that” and an “is” are missing.
The Tabernacle Choir, which was performing musical versions of Robert Frost poetry and other secular works, now releases CDs filled with songs of faith, assurance and the need to rely on the Divine.
Yes, the choir’s performing of religious music is a monumental shift away from its roots.
I feel protection is the point behind the long row of sentries — those Mormon temples — that stand along the Wasatch — the new Brigham City temple, new Payson temple, the new remade Ogden temple and all the others.
Let’s review: we have a perfume bottle in bubble wrap in a box on a ship going down a road in a plane with horses and woodland creatures and now a long row of sentries. It makes me dizzy. And why the use of three em-dashes? The first two work, as the phrase “those Mormon temples” interrupts the flow of the sentence for explanation. But the third one throws the whole thing off. Are we meant to see “that stand as along the Wasatch” as another interruption or a continuation from “sentries”? That’s what happens when you try to write a paragraph-long sentence spliced together with em-dashes.
I feel protect precious things is the point of the new mission statements of LDS businesses, the point for books that are picked for publication and the lessons selected for manuals.
Another mess of a sentence. I guess Jerry doesn’t like the word “that,” which is sorely needed after “I feel” to make the sentence at all comprehensible. But I think the omission was intentional to maintain that paired rhetorical device: here “I feel protection” is paired with “I feel protect” (can one feel protect?). It would be nice for him to examples to support this point, but alas, none are forthcoming.
Part of the world would divide and conquer.
And yet another metaphor: which is it, a battle or a bottle?
The church would gather and protect.
OK, we needed that sentence to pull together the jumbled mess.
Something uneasy this way comes. Not a vilent clash as in Jerusalem — where cultures fight openly. We won’t be seeing stone throwers in the streets of Salt Lake City.
The subtle change from “wicked” to “uneasy” is actually kind of a nice touch, as if to reassure readers that he’s not crazy. The next two sentences add to the reassurance by suggesting that we’re not about to have an American Intifada. (Note to the Deseret News: “vilent” should never get past a copyeditor.)
The battle here won’t be about territory.
Nor will it be about culture, as he’s already told us.
It will be about choices — about the advent of a bolder, more self-indulgent popular culture.
And this bolder, more self-indulgent popular culture wants our perfume! The implication is that we have to choose between whatever is in that perfume bottle and “popular culture” outside of it. But I thought it was about protecting, not choices. Or maybe the protection comes from the choices, or maybe it’s the buildings or the sentries or the bubblewrap. I’m completely confused now.
The church can see the writing on the wall — often literally.
OK, he’s leading up to something here.
And graffiti on the temple will never do.
It’s time — as the old hymn has it — to “safely gather in, ere the winter storms begin.”
As long as we have woodland creatures around, we’re good.
The plan is not to force people away.
Hence the massive walls around Temple Square
The plan is to keep what’s on the inside safe from harm.
The fragrance must be kept safe at all costs, no matter how many horses cluster outside the ship’s hatches.
And if that means putting up ramparts and watchtowers, so be it.
Of course, ramparts and watchtowers are normally used to keep people out. Just saying.
Even heaven, if you believe the stories, is a gated community — not to keep people away, but to safeguard the gentle hearts of those who dwell there.
Oh, dear. After all that traveling in ships and planes along bumpy roads through turbulence, we end up in one of those upper-middle-class gated communities. That’s as good a place as any to deliver perfume, I suppose.