Sunday, August 2, 2009

Tillman's Rules of Writing


I’ve given it a lot of thought over the years (well, OK, decades) and I believe there are only three factors in writing. In order of importance they are Clarity, Brevity, and Style.

Obviously, Clarity is Job One because writing’s purpose is to communicate. But as others have lamented, the language of King James, Shakespeare, Hemingway and Churchill (not to mention PJ O’Rourke) has fallen upon hard times. For reasons that no human can explain, corporate English has mutated into an arcane, convoluted, downright ugly entity. I’ve sat through a military briefing in which a board of admirals talked to one another in their Beltway argot, actually using inane phrases such as “event-driven human value chain.” I have absolutely no idea what an event-driven human value chain might be. Obviously neither did the speakers.

But the problem is far more widespread than merely in corporate environs. Consider the following passage from a best-selling 1980s novel. (Character’s names have been changed to protect the offender.) “Bob asked George if he thought he was getting fat.”

Go ahead: tell us who asked what of whom. But that’s not merely the fault of the author; it betrays an indifferent publisher. The editor could have retrieved the passage thusly: “Bob asked George if George thought Bob was getting fat.” That’s awkward but crystal clear. “Bob asked George if Bob was getting fat” is less confusing but still wordy.

How about: “Bob mosied up to George and asked, ‘Hey dude, am I getting fat?’”

Brevity is Job Two, and it often suffers as well. If you can say it in eight words instead of eleven, why not? Consider the order that launched Operation Overlord, the allied invasion of Nazi-Occupied Europe. The entire document, issued by the Combined Chiefs of Staff in February 1944, comprised 578 words. In eight paragraphs it designated General Dwight Eisenhower supreme allied commander in Europe, and in 68 words assigned his specific task:

“You will enter the continent of Europe and, in conjunction with the other United Nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces. The date for entering the Continent is the month of May, 1944. After adequate Channel ports have been secured, exploitation will be directed towards securing an area that will facilitate both ground and air operations against the enemy.”

You can hardly say it more efficiently.

As we’ve learned to our cost (fiscal and otherwise), brevity has been exiled from the U.S. Government. In the 1980s the Department of Defense fought and lost the Paperwork Reduction War, and today it’s even worse. At present the proposed health care bill runs 1,017 pages—another of those massive documents that nobody bothers to read before approving.

Style is important, but IMO it’s not as important as Clarity or Brevity. If I see a common problem with new writers, it’s the tendency to concentrate on how they phrase their message rather than how well they communicate it. Most scribes want to be considered stylish, “irregardless” of how they accomplished Job One and Job Two.

Then there’s punctuation. My sympathy goes to the possessive apostrophe, because it’s so widely flogged and abused. For reasons that nobody can explain, it is inserted before the letter S where totally unnecessary. The following was noted years ago in an Arizona trailer park: “Tonight’s movie: My Hero’s Have Alway’s Been Cowboy’s.”

You can’t make up stuff like that. But Birmingham, England, has decided to rid apostrophe’s (!) from its lexicon entirely. According to the BBC, the formerly “St. Paul’s Square” now is “St Pauls Square”—evidently periods were banned as well.
Calculated nitwittery: it’s here to stay.

For all the abuse heaped upon The Mother Tongue, it retains its luster (“lustre” in Birmingham). The following observation comes from a longtime colleague who made a poor but honest (and extraordinarily colorful) living in the U.S. State Department. I had made passing mention to English as the lingua franca of technology (try saying “carubetor” in Hindustani), prompting Bart to declare:

“Actually, there's more to the adoption of English as a ‘lingua franca’ than technology. (By the way, did you notice that we use ‘lingua franca’ as meaning a world-wide understandable language? Of course, French use to be the diplomatic language and lingua franca means literally "language of the Franks [French]". But no more). Many languages--French being the principal exception-- simply incorporate English technical words into their own vocabulary. Russian, Mongolian, Japanese, and most Romance languages are replete with such terms.

“But that doesn't explain why English is now the common shared language for science, business, diplomacy, tourism, etc. The real reason is that English is practically unique in one very important respect. Even though English has more words than any other language (more than 400,000 and growing by thousands of words a day), it is the ONLY language that will permit someone to make themselves understood if they can master 500 simple words and only three or four basic grammar rules. No other spoken language comes close. That's why English is the most taught foreign language world-wide. It's the mandatory second language in Russia, China, Japan, and most of South America.”Those of us whose native language is English are truly fortunate.”

Incidentally, Bart’s first foray into international discourse occurred while strapped into the rear seat of an F-4J Phantom, seeking local indigenous personnel on his radar scope, the better to launch an AIM-7 Sparrow. He didn’t need a degree in English to accomplish that mission, but it surely helped..


  1. Thank you.

    (I think I used all of your rules, too.)

  2. Word processing contributed greatly to awkward and oblique writing, because it made relative minor changes seemingly painless. Years ago on Steelnavy there was a link to a 1918-20 discussion comparing cage and tripod masts on ships. While here were several pen and ink corrections, it was written in one voice and was readable. The CAREFUL WRITER, Bernstein, Theodore M. 1965 lives up to its subtitle "a Modern Guide to English Usage". The problems he discusses in some cases have gotten worse.

  3. Bill, your example is well taken. Years (and years) ago I saw a copy of the 1906 Infantry Manual, which was written for an educated enlisted soldier. In a way, it was ironic because it probably exceeded the education level of most enlistees.

    The internet has accelerated the decline in literate writing. We all learned the acronyms (LOL, ROTF, IMO, etc) along the way, but I've seen some appalling spelling that could not be typos, even on history forums. In one instance, when I suggested that a Canadian kid might benefit by learning more of The Queen's English, he turned abusive and was banned from the site.

    I appreciate my readers, even (sometimes especially) when they correct MY verbiage!