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Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters Hardcover – Import, May 16, 2017
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"A timely reminder that precision of language is the writer's greatest weapon. Harry Evans' methodical research and wry eye provide an entertaining lesson in intent, measured and exacting. At a time when public debate is shrill and filled by the overly assertive, Evans gives us a treat of a book that, through the use of practical examples, allows us to bathe in a language of clarity. Do I Make Myself Clear? shows that writing remains the gift of the ultimate explorer. Make more time for the journey."―David Walmsley, Editor-in-Chief, The Globe and Mail
Harry Evans is one of the great -- indeed legendary -- editors of our time. Over the course of his career, he has edited newspapers, books and magazines, which surely qualifies as a publishing trifecta. All his talents -- and irresistible charm -- are on display in Do I Make Myself Clear? It's much more than a guide to English usage -- it's a companion: informative, delightful and indispensable. Do not hit INT or SEND without it!―Christopher Buckley author of Thank You For Smoking
About the Author
He holds the British Press Awards' Gold Award for Lifetime Achievement of Journalists. In 2001 British journalists voted him the all-time greatest British newspaper editor, and in 2004 he was knighted. Since 2011, he has been editor-at-large for Reuters.
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This is not a tour of the rules of grammar. If you seek scolding by a grammarian, you won’t find it here. If you seek a guide to short-form Twitterspeak, look elsewhere. But if you are serious about writing as a craft this book is worth study.
Some reviewers have confused “short” with “concise”. The author points out the contrast, which some readers have missed. His prose is concise and readable, rich in ideas and examples, remaining true to the clarity he advocates. The man practices what he preaches.
This can result in lengthy sentences, but no matter because his meaning is always clear. If there is any fault in the text it is in the repetition of examples. Evans' approach is slow and deliberate—each example has something subtle to teach.
And some lessons are not so subtle. Poor language can have life-or-death consequences, as Evans amply illustrates.
His numerous examples may seem tedious, but they are skimmable for those who prefer to walk on by. For others, Evans has dropped nuggets of wit by the trailside to reward the sharp-eyed reader. Such as, "..his writing had the thud of jelly spooned onto a paper plate." And, “Chief executives should have word tasters just as the Borgias had food tasters.”
Note to critics of the book: the expertise shared by Evans is not easy to win. It takes hard work and this volume is an excellent testament to his lifetime of learning.
The growth of “alternative facts” and the “fog” caused by misinformation are clouding our society and indeed our democracy’s ability to function properly. In this digital age the right words are oxygen to our ideas, as a desire to be precise is vanishing from our culture and writing of every kind is trending towards more speed and information but far less clarity. And this growing amount of misinformation comes from the very top of our leadership as countless Tweets spew out of the Oval Office, distracting reporters and society from what’s really important and how we might come together to solve some of our pressing problems.
Harold Evans proved to be a keen observer of our time and country as well as in writing. A former editor of the Times of London and recipient of the British Gold Award for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism, he was knighted and is currently the editor at large for Reuters. Oftentimes it takes an outsider like de Tocqueville to see through the veneer of our society and articulate what’s really happening and what the implications might be for the future.
The author provides excellent advice on what good writing is. He provides a clear explanation of what makes a cliché, a well-defined phrase “so hackneyed as to be knock-kneed and spavined.” But goes on to point out that they serve a natural inclination for quick vocabulary in daily social encounters and provides several humorous examples such as “horny as a three-peckered billy goat” and goes on to provide six more pages of examples.
He goes on to provide examples of how “zombies” and “flesh-eaters” threaten prose. A “zombie” is a noun that has devoured a verb, so document becomes “documentation” and participate becomes “participation.” The “flesh eaters” are unnecessary words, pompous phrases and “propositional parasites” that eat space and reduce the strength of one’s writing, so “Named” becomes “A man/woman by the name of” and “stay” becomes “continue to remain.”
The author also tells impressive stories on the power of words and how their authors were inspired to articulate what they felt. Like FDR following the bombing of Pearl Harbor when he “deleted the murmuring commas in the opening sentence and came up with the killer phrase live in infamy set between two dagger-point dashes.”
He also shows how words make reality incomprehensible, such as a rental car warranty. He adds some humor to one example of this triple talk with, “The cost of any repairs carried out on the instructions of the Renter or Driver without the prior written approval of the Owner shall be the responsibility of the Renter” to which the author responds with a “Who dat?”
As a student of sociology and history, I was delighted at the timely social commentary which permeated the book. He says that “Donald Trump was a joke until he wasn’t.” He refers to a piece in the Wall Street Journal which suggested a parallel to the presidential election and “the last dark age of Western politics” and compares Trump with Benito Mussolini with parallels that include a growing belief that democracy was rigged and that immigrants were plundering the economy. The author points out that these are similarities and that the readers should not be indifferent to the parallels.
Other interesting social commentary includes a look at the revision in the test of the Social Security act of December 2015 and May 2016 as an example of “social and political ‘meanness’ like Kafka waking up in Bleak House.” Where “language defies understanding and, in the best Orwellian tradition, the text imposing cuts in Social Security benefits is headed “Protecting Social Security Benefits.” And “vast numbers of Americans fail to claim the money they could. There are more than nine thousand different claiming options—and the administration is prohibited by law from giving case-by-case personal advice.” He strengthens his point with, “But the millions of people who have paid a lifetime of dues are entitled to clearer English than is found in the 2,728 rules governing Social Security and the Program Operations Manual System which are thicker than the Bible, to the point that the Social Security Administration stopped printing them in the 1980s.
Evans not only provides practical examples of how editing and rewriting can make for better communication, even in the digital age, but provides insightful commentary on our times with cutting satire and graceful charm.
In the case of legislation, he gives examples of how to simplify a paragraph, but ignores the reason that laws are written with cross references to other paragraphs. It’s because a legal definition of something might be at the beginning of a piece of legislation and then referred to throughout the bill. Although moving the definition to the confusing paragraph makes for a good example of improving clarity, duplicating that definition throughout a real bill significantly increases the likelihood of errors in duplication and makes subsequent amendments to the bill cumbersome. I assume the author knows this, but it would be good if he acknowledged it. But more importantly, dismissing such language as the result of bad motives ignores the other reasons it exists. Sometimes legal precision and clarity are not as compatible as we wish them to be.
It is interesting that he seems to have a one-sided view of people whose politics he dislikes, but then he has as an example at the end of the book, an essayist whose main point is that people aren’t one-dimensional. I can’t tell if he can’t see the contradiction or didn’t care.
That said, I liked the book overall. The examples of how to simplify writing were good.
The author mentions Orwell’s observation that “emptying words of meaning” is essential to authoritarian rule. He then goes on to show selected examples of this, all from the political right. Would be better if he had a list of examples from all points of the political spectrum and from different governments through history, similar to what appears in chapter 5 for clichéd expressions. It would be more useful and would appear less biased. It’s not like one political party in one country has a lock on doing this. But the concept is valid either way.
Overall, I liked the examples of bad writing and how he cleaned them up. Too many authors of books like this would give contrived examples that aren’t really helpful; Evans gives real examples of bad writing, paragraphs of it, so you can see what is actually needed to fix something like that – or to avoid writing it in the first place. Even the examples of government doublespeak are better when he cleans them up, I would have preferred the addition of an explanation for why it sometimes is that way for reasons that are, if not really good, at least not reprehensible. It’s as important to know when simplifying things reduces precision of wording, especially in legislation, as to understand how to make such writing easier to read. Sometimes it’s not an all-or-nothing decision.
I gave the book four stars; I whacked one star for the implication that the reader should and could divine the motive of a writer, especially when there is a biased reason to assume the worst possible motives.
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