Writing Good English - A talk by William Zinsser to foreign students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism The American Scholar.
I received this through email, but, as it's long, I'm posting just some extracts. Hope you find it useful!
Writing English as a Second Language
By William Zinsser
A talk to the incoming international students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, August 11, 2009
Five years ago one of your deans at the journalism school, Elizabeth Fishman, asked me if I would be interested in tutoring international students who might need some extra help with their writing. She knew I had done a lot of traveling in Asia and Africa and other parts of the world where many of you come from.
I knew I would enjoy that, and I have—I’ve been doing it ever since. I’m the doctor that students get sent to see if they have a writing problem that their professor thinks I can fix. As a bonus, I’ve made many friends—from Uganda, Uzbekhistan, India, Ethiopia, Thailand, Iraq, Nigeria, Poland, China, Colombia and many other countries.
I can’t imagine how hard it must be to learn to write comfortably in a second—or third or fourth—language. I don’t think I could do it, and I admire your grace in taking on that difficult task. Much of the anxiety that I see in foreign students could be avoided if certain principles of writing good English—which nobody ever told them—were explained in advance. So I asked if I could talk to all of you during orientation week and tell you some of the things my students have found helpful.
So that’s why we’re here today.
I’ll start with a question: What is good writing?
It depends on what country you’re from. We all know what’s considered “good writing” in our own country. We grow up immersed in the cadences and sentence structure of the language we were born into, so we think, “That’s probably what every country considers good writing; they just use different words.” If only! I once asked a student from Cairo, “What kind of language is Arabic?” I was trying to put myself into her mental process of switching from Arabic to English. She said, “It’s all adjectives.”
Well, of course it’s not all adjectives, but I knew what she meant: it’s decorative, it’s ornate, it’s intentionally pleasing. Another Egyptian student, when I asked him about Arabic, said, “It’s all proverbs. We talk in proverbs. People say things like ‘What you are seeking is also seeking you.’” He also told me that Arabic is full of courtesy and deference, some of which is rooted in fear of the government. “You never know who’s listening,” he said, so it doesn’t hurt to be polite. That’s when I realized that when foreign students come to me with a linguistic problem it may also be a cultural or a political problem.
Now I think it’s lovely that such a decorative language as Arabic exists. I wish I could walk around New York and hear people talking in proverbs. But all those adjectives and all that decoration would be the ruin of any journalist trying to write good English. No proverbs, please.
Spanish also comes with a heavy load of beautiful baggage that will smother any journalist writing in English. The Spanish language is a national treasure, justly prized by Spanish-speaking people. But what makes it a national treasure is its long sentences and melodious long nouns that express a general idea. Those nouns are rich in feeling, but they have no action in them—no people doing something we can picture. My Spanish-speaking students must be given the bad news that those long sentences will have to be cruelly chopped up into short sentences with short nouns and short active verbs that drive the story forward. What’s considered “good writing” in Spanish is not “good writing” in English.
So what is good English—the language we’re here today to wrestle with? It’s not as musical as Spanish, or Italian, or French, or as ornamental as Arabic, or as vibrant as some of your native languages. But I’m hopelessly in love with English because it’s plain and it’s strong. It has a huge vocabulary of words that have precise shades of meaning; there’s no subject, however technical or complex, that can’t be made clear to any reader in good English—if it’s used right. Unfortunately, there are many ways of using it wrong. Those are the damaging habits I want to warn you about today.
First, a little history. The English language is derived from two main sources. One is Latin, the florid language of ancient Rome. The other is Anglo-Saxon, the plain languages of England and northern Europe. The words derived from Latin are the enemy—they will strangle and suffocate everything you write. The Anglo-Saxon words will set you free.
How do those Latin words do their strangling and suffocating? In general they are long, pompous nouns that end in -ion—like implementation and maximization and communication (five syllables long!)—or that end in -ent—like development and fulfillment. Those nouns express a vague concept or an abstract idea, not a specific action that we can picture—somebody doing something. Here’s a typical sentence: “Prior to the implementation of the financial enhancement.” That means “Before we fixed our money problems.”
So if those are the bad nouns, what are the good nouns? The good nouns are the thousands of short, simple, infinitely old Anglo-Saxon nouns that express the fundamentals of everyday life: house, home, child, chair, bread, milk, sea, sky, earth, field, grass, road … words that are in our bones, words that resonate with the oldest truths. When you use those words, you make contact—consciously and also subconsciously—with the deepest emotions and memories of your readers. Don’t try to find a noun that you think sounds more impressive or “literary.” Short Anglo-Saxon nouns are your second-best tools as a journalist writing in English.
What are your best tools? Your best tools are short, plain Anglo-Saxon verbs. I mean active verbs, not passive verbs. If you could write an article using only active verbs, your article would automatically have clarity and warmth and vigor.
Let’s go back to school for a minute and make sure you remember the difference between an active verb and a passive verb. An active verb denotes one specific action: JOHN SAW THE BOYS. The event only happened once, and we always know who did what: it was John who activated the verb SAW. A passive-voice sentence would say: THE BOYS WERE SEEN BY JOHN. It’s longer. It’s weaker: it takes three words (WERE SEEN BY instead of SAW), and it’s not as exact. How often were the boys seen by John? Every day? Once a week? Active verbs give momentum to a sentence and push it forward. If I had put that last sentence in the passive—“momentum is given to a sentence by active verbs and the sentence is pushed forward by them”—there is no momentum, no push.
I have four principles of writing good English. They are Clarity, Simplicity, Brevity, and Humanity.
First, Clarity. If it’s not clear you might as well not write it. You might as well stay in bed.
Two: Simplicity. Simple is good. Writing is not something you have to embroider with fancy stitches to make yourself look smart.
Principle number 3. Brevity. Short is always better than long. Short sentences are better than long sentences. Short words are better than long words. Don’t say currently if you can say now. Don’t say assistance if you can say help. Don’t say numerous if you can say many. Don’t say facilitate if you can say ease. Don’t call someone an individual [five syllables!]; that’s a person, or a man or a woman. Don’t implement or prioritize. Don’t say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. Writing is talking to someone else on paper or on a screen.
Which brings me to my fourth principle: Humanity. Be yourself. Never try in your writing to be someone you’re not. Your product, finally, is you. Don’t lose that person by putting on airs, trying to sound superior.
Besides, one maxim that my students find helpful is: One thought per sentence. Readers only process one thought at a time. So give them time to digest the first set of facts you want them to know. Then give them the next piece of information they need to know, which further explains the first fact.
To sum up:
Repeat after me:
Short is better than long.
Simple is good. (Louder)
Long Latin nouns are the enemy.
Anglo-Saxon active verbs are your best friend.
One thought per sentence.