Yes, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I am a lover of words and writing. I try to be open-minded about the art, but this weekend I was struck by two less than artful abuses.
The first was New York Governor, David A. Paterson’s ludicrous pronouncement, “I pledge I have not obfuscated.” Whatever happened to “lied”?
The second occurred as my grandson and I drove to his 5th grade breakfast fundraiser. As we were cruising along in the dawn’s early light, he proudly announced he was a PTP. Science wizard that he is, I thought this must have something to do with the Periodic Table of the Elements. Not so, he smiled and said that’s “Pancake Transportation Personnel.” Are “waiters” no more?
The late, E.B. White, master author and essayist, would have been horrified. White was adamant about clarity in writing. One of his cardinal rules was: “Avoid fancy words: Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”
White and William Strunk, Jr., wrote The Elements of Style, a tiny but venerable guide which is just as valuable today as when it was when first published in 1919. As we struggle with résumés, cover letters and all other communications related to capturing and positioning ourselves for our job searches, we need to keep this little gem of a book at out fingertips.
The guide begins with sixty-three words that could change your world of writing: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
In this weekend’s NY Times excellent essay, Writing a Résumé That Shouts ‘Hire Me’, by Phyllis Korkki, the advice is “be concise, tight, lean and clean” – an echo of the 1919 Elements of Style, credo: Make every word tell.
Muriel Barbery in The Elegance of the Hedgehog has written a remarkable passage describing a Maori rugby player that is a perfect metaphor for telling words. He “was like a tree, a great indestructible oak with deep roots and a powerful radiance – everyone could feel it. And yet you also got the impression that the great oak could fly, that it would be a quick as the wind, despite, or perhaps because of its deep roots.”
As you write, take care to choose words that are grounded, words that are clear and concise – telling words which ignite the imagination, radiate and resonate so everyone can hear you.