Improve yourself in 2021 by improving your writing

Most of us can improve ourselves by improving our writing. For a quick start in this new year, let's highlight a few trouble spots.

A friend of mine collects self-improvement books published more than a century ago, containing wisdom their authors had gleaned long before modern gurus borrowed from them and flooded the market with workshops, retreats and videos.

Most of us can improve ourselves by improving our writing. For a quick start in this new year, let’s highlight a few trouble spots.

In my bookcase, one collection that focuses on the craft of writing, “How to Write a Sentence” by Stanley Fish, offers this formula: “Sentence craft equals sentence comprehension equals sentence appreciation.”

Toward those ends — craft, comprehension and appreciation — consider some of the common errors in writing:

• Separation of related elements of content. Call it drift, which obscures meaning. Example: Jones, a Black man, was turned down for a home he wanted to buy because of his race.

No, that mistakenly means he wanted to buy that home because of his race. Start the sentence with “Because of his race,” and the real meaning becomes clear.

• A sentence that starts in one direction but then, at the comma, slips as if on a banana peel and skids off the trail. Example: A nominee for the Heisman Trophy, his parents attended every game he played since sixth grade.

No, his parents are not the nominee; he is. So, the thing that must come right after the opening clause is his name.

• Reliance on a form of “to be” — is, was, has been, etc. — as your choice of a verb, the crucial component you need to power your content. Example: A tragic effect of the pandemic is when your business closes forever.

The verb “is” forms a thin reed that cannot sustain the weight of a hummingbird. Use a hard verb, such as “occurs.”

• Reliance on the passive voice. Example: A good time was had by all.

Ugh! Deadening! With active-voice verbs, show how people had a good time.

Clarity? In response to my invitation to explore “obscurantism,” a reader in Eau Claire, Wis., Michael Lindsay, submitted this gem — with only nine syllables:

“Disambiguate obfuscation.”

Clear enough?

By Gary Gilson, first published on JANUARY 9, 2021