Fight Verbal Diarrhea!

Earlier today I came across a blog which despite having excellent subject matter and multimedia content was damn near impossible to read. The reason? Well, along with the obscene number of grammatical errors, run-on sentences and completely unnecessary transitions, the writer just didn’t know when to shut the hell up and get to the point.

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I mean, I go off on tangents from time to time, but damn ….

There’s way too much of this out there in my humble opinion. Frankly I think English education has a lot to do with it.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of excellent English teachers. I don’t in any way mean to denigrate the profession as a whole. However there are also a lot of English teachers past and present who – to be polite – are just phoning it in. Well, it’s high time they were called on it.

Contrary to what many seem to think, good writing isn’t about stuffing compositions with as many goddamn words as possible. Not even close. Yet many of us are products of high school and college composition classes which stressed minimum requirements x pages of this or y words of that. Now while I agree some quantitative standards are needed – especially in required general education classes in which most students have little to no interest in writing – it’s easy to let such things get out of hand.

Once out of the educational setting serious writers don’t give much thought to word count. This is becoming even more the case as newspapers and their finite space requirements gradually give way to blogs and other online media, which have no such constraints. Indeed when length does become a problem among professionals, it’s almost always because the content is too LONG. Yet it’s the minimums which are stressed in school. That’s backwards.

You may not think of him as a literary giant, but movie critic Leonard Maltin has some serious chops when it comes to the written word. Maltin’s reviews ran nationally when he was still in high school. He published the first edition of his long-running Movie Guide at the ripe old age of 18. Can your high school English teacher top that?

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Didn’t think so.
Image credit: Alan Light

Well, Maltin apparently doesn’t think much of minimum word counts either. He published full reviews of five words or less on three separate occasions, the shortest of which simply read, “No.” Granted, those are isolated incidents in Maltin’s extensive body of work. The point is he isn’t afraid to mix things up a bit.

Yet we don’t teach writing as the Leonard Maltins of the world understand it. Instead quantity is stressed completely over quality, and to hell with the consequences. Like many kids, when my sister was in sixth grade she was caught chewing gum in class. As punishment she was forced to write a an essay on gum … of 5,000 freakin’ words.

Are you kidding me? You might as well ask a sixth grader to fully transcribe War and Peace from the original Russian for all the good that will do you from an educational standpoint, or even a punitive one. She eventually completed this task by overusing adverbs in a manner suggesting everyone at Lolly’s was on crack (e.g. “I’m really, really, really, really, really, really, really sorry I brought gum to class and I will never, never, never, never, never, never …” ad infinitum).

Personally I hate gum. I have nightmares about it.

As bad as that is, my war story is in many ways much worse. Around the same time, as a high school sophomore I was saddled with perhaps the most pants-shittingly banal, insipid and arbitrary English teacher in recorded history. This woman required 25 sentences for her final exam. Anything shorter meant automatic failure. Accordingly she counted sentences before she even bothered to read anything. Much to my chagrin, I miscounted and unwittingly handed in a 23-sentence missive. I damn near failed the entire class as a result. A quarter century later, that still enrages me.

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“We rejected your work, Dr. Einstein. You used the wrong font.”

Given all this it comes to no surprise to me many people write by stating the obvious, embracing redundancy and otherwise stuffing their work full of meaningless drivel. You can tell who does it because they constantly use phrases such as:

“I’d like to write about ….”
“And now I’m going to talk about ….”
“Previously I have discussed ….”
“As I mentioned before ….”
“According to Webster’s ….”

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Especially avoid that last one. If I wanted a dictionary definition, I’d read a damn dictionary.
Image source: Klara Kim

It’s fairly easy to avoid boring your readers like this. First, write like you speak. Second, remember it’s not necessary to announce your subject or remind your reader of something you wrote about only two paragraphs ago. Such things should be self-evident. Third, brush up a bit on active and passive voice, using the former whenever possible. Finally, don’t freak out about word or page count. If your subject is interesting enough, that has a funny way of taking care of itself.

Oh yeah, if you had craptacular teachers like my sister and I did, do your best to unlearn what they taught you. Chances are like us you had good teachers as well. Dwell on those experiences instead.

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