wherewithal press, inc.

Writing Simple & Direct

I first came across the historian Jacques Barzun (1907 – 2012) because he wrote an introduction to a collection of essays by John Jay Chapman. (I can no longer remember what New York Public Library rabbit hole I fell down to find Chapman, but I used a passage of his for an epigraph in More Than Conquerors.)

More recently I came across a list of writing “rules” Barzun published in 1975. They’re reminiscent of Fowler but good reminders for writers prone to forget that their readers want to understand, first and foremost, and only then, maybe, be impressed by the author’s intelligence:

  • Weed out the jargon
  • Have a point and make it by means of the best word.
  • Look for all fancy wordings and get rid of them.
  • Avoid everything that can be called roundabout–in idea, in linking, or in expression.
  • Read and revise, reread and revise….

Just below this–and I realize the above is bulleted but not all bullet lists are bad–were three more rules, these from John R. Trimble’s Writing with Style:

  1. Write with the assumption that your reader is a companionable friend with a warm sense of humor and an appreciation of straightforwardness.
  2. Write as if you were actually talking to that friend, but talking with enough leisure to frame your thoughts concisely and interestingly.
  3. If you’ve written a paragraph that sounds heavy and tortured, put down your pencil and ask yourself: “If I were actually speaking these thoughts to a friend, how would I probably say them?” Then go ahead and talk them out loud, and when you’ve finished, write down as nearly as you can recall what you said.

Or you could use the voice memo function on your phone! This last tip makes me ache for all Wherewithal clients, past and present, who are writing for academic presses. They want to write in a simple, direct way, but are under immense pressure—from colleagues, from their tenure committees—to sound tortured, almost as if they had to push the words out through a hernia.

In those situations we generally find that resistance pays off. When reviewers sit down to read the more accessible, and I’d argue, more interesting book that results, they’re in many cases not just positive but downright enthusiastic.