Good and Bad Writing | National Review

Good and Bad Writing | National Review

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Last week, I was asked to give a seminar on journalism to a group of college students who were getting a new magazine off the ground. One thing they wanted to know was whether academic and journalistic writing required different approaches. They do not, in my view. Good writing is good writing. Clarity is desirable. Obscurity is undesirable. And the road to obscurity is paved with jargon.

Consider the following excerpt from a London School of Economics Ph.D. thesis entitled, “a sociological analysis of the novels of Charles Dickens.”

This thesis argues that the reflection of society in Dickens’s mature novels is not mechanical, passive or superficial but a creative, critical, and generalising reflection of the essential aspects of everyday social relations within Victorian industrial society, though this is mediated through both class values and literary conventions. The development of the mature novels’ social vision from the episodic social criticism of specific abuses in the earlier fiction is related to changes in the social/ economic climate of Victorian England and especially to the growth of urbanisation. Dickens’s novelistic attitude to the mid-Victorian middle classes is explored in its full complexity, for although Dickens was lionised by a predominantly middle-class reading public and always wrote in accordance with middle-class standards of propriety and delicacy, and despite his utilisation of selected middleclass values as moral positives and structural organising agents within his novels, Dickens cannot be satisfactorily labelled as a ‘bourzeois’ writer or apologist.

I asked the students if they could whittle this down to two sentences or less. They could not. In the end, the best I could come up with was this: “Though Dickens’s fiction was popular with his middle-class contemporaries, it’s evident from his later works that he remained aloof from their values.” (Though even then, I’m not exactly sure that’s what the author meant.)

The process of writing involves a great deal of re-writing. Most of this involves deleting the unnecessary. Take the following excerpt from On Writing Well by William Zinsser. It has already gone through four or five re-writes. Still, Zinsser sees room for improvement:

If the reader is lost, it is generally because the writer of the article has not been careful enough to keep him on the proper path.

This carelessness can take any number of different forms. Perhaps a sentence is so excessively long and cluttered that the reader, hacking his way through all the verbiage, simply doesn’t know what it the writer means. Perhaps a sentence has been so shoddily constructed that the reader could read it in any of several two or three different ways. He thinks he knows what the writer is trying to say, but he’s not sure.

“A clear sentence is no accident,” Zinsser writes. “Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. . . .” As has long been suggested, good writers express complicated ideas clearly, whereas bad writers make even the simplest ideas cumbersome and confusing. For more on this topic, I recommend reading Jay Nordlinger’s “Right Words.”

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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.