Category Archives: clarity

Use adult vocabulary for academic words

I was working with a high school freshman writing an essay.  He was baffled by his teacher’s directions to write a chicken foot and buckets.  So was I.  There was a drawing of a horizontal line with three diagonal “toes” going out from the end of the horizontal line.  This was the chicken foot.  There was another drawing of four cans with a space for a label at the top of each one.  These were the buckets.  But there was no identification of what these terms or diagrams meant.

Emails back and forth solved the problem.  The chicken foot was the thesis.  The horizontal line was the opinion and the three toes were the supporting ideas backing up the thesis.  The buckets were the details for each of the chicken’s toes, with an extra one  in case.

The more I thought about these terms, though, the more annoyed I became.  Why not use the terminology that the student will need to use in other high school English classes and in college classes?  Why not call a thesis a thesis and its supporting topic sentences supporting topic sentences?  Why not call evidence “evidence” or “citations”?

What my student’s teacher is doing is what so many parents do for babies learning to talk.  The parents say “night-night” instead of “sleep” or “bye-bye” instead of “we’re leaving.” But eventually the children need to learn the proper names for “sleep” and “leaving.”  Why introduce “baby” versions of the words?  Isn’t “sleep” just as easy to understand as “night-night”?

I know the teacher is well meaning.  And I know she explained “chicken foot” and “buckets” during class.  But my student didn’t understand, and looking up those words on the teacher handout didn’t help.  If the teacher had used the word “thesis,” he could have looked that word up and found plenty of explanation.  If she had used the words “topic sentences” or “supporting topic sentences,” he could have found those words and their meanings online.  If she had used the words “evidence” or “citations,” my student could have figured out what they meant and what he was expected to do.

Children eventually need to learn proper vocabulary for ideas, whether it is “identify” or “cite.”  Babying their vocabulary does no service to children; rather it confuses them and stalls their acquisition of adult vocabulary.

Write using positives to avoid confusion

Read the following sentence.

“But my neighbor refuted the idea that she could not disregard the least amount of dust.”

Did you need to read that more than once to figure out what it means?  The sentence contains several negative words which take more work to decipher than positive words.

student thinking about what to writeSentences like this one are common.  “A stay of execution has been denied.”  (Two negatives)  “That is not an insignificant barrier to success.”  (Two negatives, or three if you think of “barrier” as a negative)  “If seldom eaten, a candy bar is not injurious to our health.” (Three negatives)

As students, we are taught that a double negative equals a positive.  We are aware of “not,” “never,” and “no” as negatives.  But many other words with negative connotations can confuse listeners and readers.  Some are

Ain’t, although, any, avoid, barely, but, deny, doubt, few, hardly,  however, ignore, instead, least, little, neither, nobody, none, nothing, nowhere, rarely, refute, scarcely, seldom, and though.

Thousands of other negatives can be formed by adding the prefixes “dis-,” “‘il-,” “im-,” “in-,” “ir-,” and “un-” to words, as in disregard, illegal, immoderate, inverse, irrefutable and unlikely.

Adding to the confusion, in some languages and in some dialects of English, double negatives are acceptable to add emphasis.  But not in standard English.

So, if you want your readers to understand you at the first read, write using positives, not negatives.

By the way, that first sentence means that my neighbor said he or she could ignore a small amount of dust.

Should you name with different words?

Suppose you are writing about Mae babysitting.  Should you write:

Mae looked at the little boy.  This experienced babysitter wondered when she should put the child to bed.  The tired girl wanted to bathe the child now, read him a book, and turn out his light in a half hour.  But should the young woman do that?

Or should you write

Mae looked at the little boy.  She wondered when she should put the child to bed.  She wanted to bathe the child now, read him a book, and turn out his light in a half hour.  But should she do that?

Writing experts say to write the second way.  Why?

Normally, when we speak, at the second mention of a person, we substitute a pronoun for the person’s name.  If we use another way to describe or name the person, the reader thinks we are talking about a new person.  That is because we are so used to hearing a pronoun used as a second reference.

What does the first example add that the second doesn’t?  “Experienced babysitter,” “tired girl,” and “young woman.”  Do those descriptors add anything important to the meaning of the paragraph, namely, whether Mae should put the little boy to bed?  Not really.  Do they distract the reader from the real meaning of the paragraph?  Yes.

At second reference, use a pronoun.  At third reference, use a pronoun.  If other people are involved, especially another person of the same gender, use the persons’ names to avoid confusion.  Occasionally repeat the original person’s name to remind the reader who you are writing about, but most of the time, use pronouns for subsequent references.  If you must use a noun, use the most generic noun–girl, woman–at second or third reference.

Sometimes the simplest, least “clever” way is the best.

Do you write in the classical style?

Do you write as if you are talking to someone, not preaching, not teaching, not arguing, but rather having a conversation?

Do you treat that someone as if he or she is your equal, except that you have knowledge which your friend lacks?  For example, do you write much like Elizabeth Bennett speaks to her sister, Jane, in Pride and Prejudice?

Do you simplify difficult concepts by making comparisons to everyday concepts, much like a teacher lining up a flashlight, an apple and a grape to explain an eclipse to children?

Is your meaning clear during the first read without a need to reread?

Do you let facts do the persuading, much like the charges against King George III did in the Declaration of Independence?

Is all the work of your writing hidden so that only the finished product shows, much like the elegant dinners at Downton Abby?

Do you exploit the natural structure of English sentences and paragraphs, putting the stress on the last word or phrase, much like Robert Frost in his poem, “The Road Not Taken.”

Are the facts which you present verifiable, much like a scientific experiment which can be replicated to achieve the same result, or like spectators who can be interviewed about what they saw and heard?

Do you use the perfect word or analogy, believing that with a bit of work you can find it?

Is your writing unpredictable, delighting with clever insights?

Is the structure of your writing inconspicuous, allowing the truth of your ideas to shine, much like the stitching of a beautiful garment?

Classical style is one of many writing styles (romantic, oratorical, and practical, among others).  Its roots date to ancient Greece and to 17th century France.  It has influenced American writers like Thomas Jefferson and Mark Twain but has not dominated English writing the way it has dominated French writing.

If you want to know more abut the classic style, read Clear and Simple as the truth by F. Thomas and M. Turner, Princeton University Press, 1994.  Most interesting is a section called “The Museum” which quotes varied sources to show what classical style is and is not.

Transferring what the writer knows into the mind of the reader

One of the hardest skills to teach child writers is to give enough information to make the reader know what the writer knows.  Young children expect their readers to know what they mean.  “Well, everybody knows he’s my brother.  I don’t need to say that.”

I was having a conversation with a fifth grader who was writing a first draft about golf clubs and was considering what to say about loft.

“Don’t the woods have more loft?” I asked.  “They hit the ball the farthest.”

“No, shorter clubs have more loft because the face tips back.  The more it tips back, the more loft it has.”

“Maybe you should explain that.”

“Why? All golfers know that.”

“Yes, but I’m not a golfer and I’m going to be reading your essay.”

Some parents think students should write their essays alone, and that I should become involved later, during revising, not while students are writing a first draft.

But sometimes the most important work I can do as a writing tutor, is to make the student consider what his audience knows and doesn’t know, to put the student in the shoes of the reader.  I told the student above that if I were Rory McIlroy reading his essay, he wouldn’t need to explain loft because Rory McIlroy knows all about loft.  (He was impressed that I knew who Rory McIlroy was.)  But since I have played only miniature golf, I told my student, I don’t know about loft.

Because of this “gap” between what the student knows and what the student writes, I find it useful to sit next to a student when he or she writes the first draft.  I let the student write a few sentences, and then we discuss them—sometimes for grammar or tone, but often for knowledge the student is not sharing but which the reader needs to know to understand the essay.

Discussing the “gap” while the student is writing allows the student to fix it in the early stages of writing, rather than finishing a draft and then needing to make big changes later on.  Clarifying information during the composing process saves time and effort later.

As the old proverb says, “A stitch in time saves nine.”

 

Red, white, and blue around the holidays

Ever notice that when you are writing a series—usually of three—the shortest item goes first, the middle-sized item goes second, and the longest item goes last?

That’s not a coincidence.  It’s good writing.

Thomas Jefferson knew this when he wrote, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

So did whoever wrote the pledge “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Why does this way of saying a series—shortest item to longest item—work?

It has to do with our brains.  It’s easier to keep in mind a short-named item than it is to keep in mind a longer-named item.  (Prince William v. Prince William Arthur Philip Louis Mountbatten-Windsor) If you say a longer item first in a series, our short-term memory can’t easily process it while taking in other items, even if those other items are shorter.

This principle is sometimes called “light before heavy.”

Another way of thinking about this is to put the item you wish to emphasize last.  When an emcee introduces entertainer Taylor Swift, the emcee might say, “the singer, the composer, the winner of nine Grammy awards, Taylor Swift.”

Still another way of thinking about this is to put what is known before what is new information to the reader or listener.  “The Harvard drop-out, the co-founder of Microsoft, the donator of more than 30 billion dollars in grants to make the world a better place” might be a way to introduce Bill Gates.

We are so used to hearing a series listed from shorter to longer or from known to new or from light to heavy that any other way sounds wrong.  It sounds unbalanced to say “the first President of the United States, the general, the farmer, George Washington.”

By the time we are adults, we have learned what sounds right, but for children this is a new concept and must be taught.

Want to write like Hemingway? There’s an app for that

Do you want to write like Ernest Hemingway, using active voice verbs; short, simple sentences; short, one-syllable words; and few adverbs?  There is a free web app to help you.  Here’s how the app works.

Type a passage which you want to be more Hemingway-like. Swipe and copy it.  Go to Hemingwayapp.com.  Click the “H1,” “H2,” or “H3” button at the top of the app screen to allow you to paste your passage.  Or click the “write” button in the top right corner to compose on the site.


 
Highlighted in yellow will be sentences which are long or complex or which have common errors. The app identifies them, but it’s up to you to figure out how to fix them.

Highlighted in red will be sentences which are dense, that is, too full of information. Again, it’s up to you to figure out how to fix them.

Highlighted in purple will be words for which a shorter synonym is possible. Synonyms will be suggested by the app.

Highlighted in blue will be adverbs—a sign that your verbs aren’t strong enough to stand alone. The app won’t suggest stronger verbs, but it will identify adverbs, most of which should probably go.

Highlighted in green will be passive voice verbs. You need to figure out how to rewrite the sentence to make the verb active.

In the right margin will be a readability score, that is, the reading grade level of your passage.

The Hemingway app will make your writing more Hemingway-like, but that doesn’t mean your writing will be of high literary merit.  Your writing will be streamlined and easier to read, but that is not the same as “good.”

Still, if your revising skills are poor, or if you are pinched for time, this app can offer suggestions on how to make your writing more readable.  The cost to download a desktop version (3.0) is $19.99, available for both PC’s and Mac’s.