Do you want to write like an illiterate? Like Stephen King stripped of K-12? Like J. K. Rowling at a loss for how to handwrite the letter “H”? I’d bet you do—that is, if you love Shakespeare. Some say Shakespeare, an illiterate, honed his mastery in adulthood. Others say he had a ghost writer. As for me, well, I believe in miracles.
During graduate studies, I wrote muddled in my thesis—like a big-word emcee for kindergarten grad. I used passive verbs every chance. I thought passive meant objective. My content, not my style, got my A’s.
My writing began to bud a decade later, when an editor prodded, “Write clearly.” Yet, professors often frown on clear writing, favoring the thorny. For example, during the undergrad, I wrote a paper puffed with pretentious nouns. My prof gave me an A+ while admitting she didn’t get the gist. Secretly, neither did I.
I later read Steven Pinker’s blurb on clarity in his book The Sense of Style. My takeaway? Top academics blend clarity with jargon. So, learn theoretical terms—in other words, jargon—straight away.
Now as I write, I tweak for hours, even days, thesaurus at hand. My best writing builds a surprise, a shock, a joke, or a poetic line at least once every paragraph. It takes time to craft jokes. So now when I write time crunched, and I feel it in my prose.
Even with solid writing, I may not end up in a “best of” edition. Too much weird keeps me sidelined. Yet writing keeps me sane.
My style? Fat-free sentences. Scriptwriting got me crafting fillet mignons, not Big Macs. But then I read a beautiful blurb—a page long—and wonder where I went wrong.
One day, I hope to write like Shakespeare. At least, like Stephen King stripped of K-12. Or Edgar Allen Poe with no sense of rhythm.
Harold Evens shares tips on writing clearly in his book Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters:
- What words make for clear writing? “They are mostly short, and they are concrete, not abstract” (p. 33).
- Avoid flying boots by not muddling your words: Harold Evens “used to throw a shoe at the television whenever [he] heard weather expunged in favor of existing weather conditions” (p. 12). Go simple, not stiff.
- How do you edit sentences? Listen to George Orwell: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out” (as cited in Evens, p. 98).
- Or listen to Strunk: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences” (as cited in Evens, p. 98).
- Don’t lean on “to be” verbs: “The passive voice … so often sneaks past usage sentries. It robs sentences of energy, adds unnecessary words, seeds a slew of wretched participles and prepositions, and leaves questions unanswered” (p. 83).
- Good writing uses active verbs: “Vigorous, clear, and concise writing demands sentences with muscle, strong active verbs cast in the active voice” (p. 83).
- Good writing shies from adverbs: “Adverbs modifying verbs and nouns and adjectives … mostly … clutter sentences” (p. 95). How do you cut the adverbs? “Use the Adverb Annihilator free for any laptop or mobile. Just type in ly and interrogate all the ly adverbs that pop up” (p. 95).
- Make your sentences sing: “Try being a musician in prose. The more you experiment, the more you will appreciate the subtleties of rhythm in good writing and bad” (pp. 108-109).
- And write like Shakespeare: “Who dares say good writing, even great writing, can be learned … Shakespeare learned to write. Yessir; Shakespeare had a lousy start then refined and mastered every trick in the rhetorical trade” (17).
According to Helen Sword, some profs urge students to write with style early in academics. In other words, learn to write like journalists. Others say write like a stiff until grad school. Hence, the motto, fake it ‘til you make it.
But if Shakespeare learned to write like Stephen-King-sans-K-12, we can too.