Read an Excerpt
When Good People Write Bad Sentences
12 Steps to Better Writing Habits
By Robert W. Harris
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Robert W. Harris
All rights reserved.
ACCEPT THE FACT THAT BAD WRITING HAPPENS
(by Overcoming Denial)
Janet H., Fred S., and Pat C. are three happy individuals. Janet's a nuclear engineer who enjoys Scrabble, Italian cooking, and walks on the beach. Fred teaches high school history and spends his spare time restoring an old Chevy pickup and watching C-SPAN. And Pat's a twenty-something executive assistant with a desire to travel and a knack for origami. They're just three hard-working people with different backgrounds and different interests. But until recently they had something in common: they all suffered from malescribism, an uncontrollable urge to write badly. It was apparent to everyone around them, but they didn't have a clue.
Janet Expected Others to Be Good Readers
"Oh, I might omit a comma now and then," Janet often would say. "But it's not a problem." Janet was a nice person and a valued employee, but her writing was sloppy. As with most intuitive punctuators, she was well-intentioned in her writing but careless with the details. "They'll know what I mean," she said whenever someone would point out a missing comma or misplaced apostrophe.
But her readers didn't always know what she meant. By relying on her own quirky punctuation guidelines, Janet was unwittingly confusing her readers. It was often a challenge to figure out what she was trying to say. Said one coworker, "When it came from Janet, you just knew you would be doing a lot of rereading to understand what she meant."
Janet felt that good reading could make up for bad writing. But was it really fair to expect others to clean up her mess?
Fred Tried to Fit In
"Look, I'm just a social misspeller." That's what Fred had to say when asked if he might need to pay a little more attention to his writing. His attitude was that if everyone spells poorly, why worry about it? He didn't want to be seen as an intellectual snob or a stickler for details. As with all rule-bending justifiers, Fred tried to hide among other offenders.
"I'm no different from anyone else," he would say. He would even make jokes to avoid dealing directly with his problem. "If I don't know how to spell a word, how can I look it up?" he often would quip. Fred's colleagues would just shake their heads in frustration.
Fred thought "close is good enough" was the best guideline when it came to spelling. But is it?
Pat Felt Restricted by Rules
"Hey, the syntax I use is my own D ----- business!" That was Pat's response whenever anyone would question her arrangement of words. To her, writing was all about feelings and individuality. "I'm trying to communicate in my own voice, not please a bunch of picky readers," she would explain impatiently.
Pat was convinced that the accepted rules of writing were designed solely to stifle her creativity. But by exercising her "freedom" of expression, she was creating problems for others. Like most syntax abusers, she continually confused and frustrated her readers. And the impact was felt at home as well. "It wasn't so bad when we got married," said her husband, "but it seemed to get worse as time went by."
Pat thought that her readers would be so involved with her ideas that they would overlook the way she arranged words. But would they?
* * *
As you can see, addiction to bad writing can manifest itself in many ways. It can cloud judgment. It can hurt relationships. It can lead to anxiety, guilt, self-loathing, and, yes, even malaise. And the central theme is always denial. Oh, our three friends saw the problem in others but not in themselves. They convinced themselves there was no cause for concern. They couldn't see the damage their writing was doing. And the worse their writing got, the better their rationalizations became.
Fortunately, Janet, Fred, and Pat are now in recovery. As survivors of malescribism, they now see each day as an opportunity to write clear, correct, well-organized prose. How did they do it? How did they pull themselves up from the depths of verbal suffering and despair? They did it by admitting that they had a problem and that the problem had become unmanageable by their own efforts. With determination, they each learned and embraced Standard English, followed the twelve-step recovery program, and ultimately regained control of their lives.
What about you, friend? Do you think that you, or someone you know, might suffer from malescribism? Do you know enough about the disorder to come to an informed decision? You've probably got lots of questions, so let's learn a little more about this all-too-common affliction.
Understanding the Problem
"What is malescribism"?
Malescribism is the tendency to write badly. It is a set of dysfunctional responses to the demands of communicating in print. Instead of carefully and thoughtfully conveying a clear, confident message, malescribes string words together in an intuitive way, disregarding many of the accepted conventions of grammar, syntax, and style.
In the past, we thought that bad writing was simply the result of making individual mistakes, such as misspelling a word or dangling a participle. Malescribes were seen as "weak" or lacking in willpower. They simply weren't trying hard enough.
But today, we have a better understanding of the problem. We now know that the tendency to write badly is a human condition, and its seed is in all of us. Individual sins of omission (such as leaving out a needed comma) or commission (such as pointless redundancy) are merely reflections of that condition. For some people the disorder is mild, creating only minor communication problems. But for others it can be a life-draining malady.
The Roots of Bad Writing
"Why does bad-writing happen?"
Bad writing has to have a cause. Is it poor teaching? Dysfunctional family experiences? Unresolved psychosexual tensions? Or is it genetic? Sure, it's all of these, and we'll explore the roots of malescribism in detail during the course of the twelve steps. Regardless of the cause, the effects of the affliction can be devastating: lives in chaos, families torn apart, careers ruined.
The Victims of Malescribism
"I'm a college graduate, go to church, and am a registered Republican — so I probably have nothing to worry about, writingwise, I mean."
If you think your station in life protects you from malescribism, think again. This malady is no respecter of status, nor does it take into account social, ethnic, or religious orientation. Malescribes are black and white, male and female, believer and nonbeliever, liberal and conservative. Malescribism is the great equalizer.
You must understand that addiction to bad writing has nothing to do with habits or beliefs. And sufferers aren't being punished by God — that's reserved for red-light runners and doctors who keep people waiting. Malescribes are distinguished from good writers only by the quality of their writing. It's important to separate the writer from the writing.
The Progressive Nature of Malescribism
"What coarse does malescribism follow? Will it go away on its own by itself?"
Malescribism is a progressive disorder: it gets worse over time. And it won't go away by itself because it's a self-maintaining process. Malescribes write poorly to enter an emotional comfort zone. Later they deny the problem, blame others, and make excuses. These behaviors lead to anxiety and the need for more emotional comfort, and so they return to their friend, the poorly constructed sentence. It is a vicious cycle.
This Book Can Help
In this book, my goal is to help people understand the roots of bad writing. Once the psychological bases for writing problems and misjudgments become clear, the healing process can begin. To facilitate change, I offer a twelve-step program for recovery. But unlike other such programs, mine doesn't require that you come to grips with your character defects. What you do in private is none of my business. Here we're going to focus on diction, grammar, and style.
Embracing Step 1
"I'm not sure if I suffer from malescribism: but, I do want to learn more about it. Should I follow the twelve steps?"
Regardless of your personal situation, you can and should at least take the first step. All are welcome on the road to recovery. So let's begin together. The first step toward recovery will free you from the need to deny the existence of malescribism.
Step 1: Accept the fact that bad writing happens.
Understand that it doesn't happen just to "them." No, malescribism affects people from all walks of life. It can strike anyone — even decent, well-intentioned people like you and me. The first step is admitting the problem.CHAPTER 2
ADMIT YOU'VE WILLINGLY MADE WRITING MISTAKES
(by Overcoming Pride)
Before they get help, almost all malescribes allow pride to block the road to recovery. For many, it's a well-honed defense against admitting any shortcoming or difficulty in writing. For others, it's a spontaneous reaction to a perceived threat to their self-esteem. But for all sufferers, it stands in the way of healthy writing.
Pride can take a variety of forms, each of which helps malescribes convince themselves that the problem is "out there." Perhaps it's the fault of their readers. Or maybe the educational system is to blame. Or maybe society's expectations are unrealistic. The list is long.
Let's start with rationalization, a defensive technique that helps us turn our liabilities into assets, make bad habits seem good, and avoid dealing with problems altogether. Most of us have considerable skill in using it.
"Just because I use extra, unnecessary, redundant words doesn't mean I'm writing poorly. I'm just trying to clearly elucidate my printed message."
Malescribes often defend wordiness as a necessary part of writing clearly and creatively. But in reality, superfluous words dilute the impact of a sentence and add nothing to its meaning. For example, writing in order to instead of the succinct to suggests that some padding was needed to give the sentence an acceptable length. So wordiness can actually suggest that you have little to say.
"Sometimes, my coworkers complain about my use of all uppercase letters in my e-mails. BUT I'M JUST TRYING TO GET THEIR ATTENTION."
Pride can lead to the use of unconventional text formatting. This technique is used in an effort to attract attention or convey seriousness or authority and thereby satisfy the writer's ego. But it comes across as shouting, and many people won't even bother to read it. Furthermore, it makes it difficult to see which parts of the message are most important. So unusual text formatting will often repel rather than attract.
"I've never been too concerned about commas, apostrophes and dashes — they're just not that important."
Imagine a professional photographer saying, "I've never been too concerned about my camera battery. It's small — it's just not that important." Ridiculous. We all know that the value of a battery has nothing to do with its size.
But when putting words on paper, malescribes become unconcerned about the small, yet crucial, elements of punctuation. They let pride keep them from attending to the "lowly" comma, apostrophe, and dash. They feel that because these items are small, they must be relatively unimportant. But if readers become confused, then the smallest item has, in fact, become the largest, hasn't it?
The Problem with Pride
The best way to understand pride is to realize its irony. Malescribes firmly believe that their writing achieves one effect, when in reality it usually has the opposite effect. Wordiness suggests that you have little to say. Unusual text formatting draws attention to itself and away from the message. Indifference to small punctuation marks makes an impact.
Pride blinds us to the fact that we're not achieving our goals. It creates a filter that reinterprets reality. And through that filter, we come to see our poorly conceived and sloppily executed prose as adequate, well-intentioned, or even creative. Thus writing becomes a self-defeating process. The harder we try, the less effective our writing becomes. Pride prevents us from owning up to the problem.
Embracing Step 2
Now that you understand the ways that pride may have obscured your questionable writing habits, you're ready to move ahead. You're ready to understand your role in your problem. The second step toward recovery will free you from the need to use pride to protect yourself from the truth about your bad writing habits.
Step 2: Admit you've willingly made writing mistakes.
It's the "willingly" part that creates the power in this crucial step. When you begin to work through this step, it means that you've finally decided to take responsibility for your writing problems. You are beginning to empower yourself.
But how bad is the problem? To what extent has malescribism taken control of your life? Let's try to find out.
Questions to Consider
To help you determine the impact of malescribism in your life, I've put together a list of ten questions. They aren't meant to be judgmental, but are provided to open the door of understanding. So give each one careful consideration.
1. Have you ever felt you should cut back on slang and colloquialisms?
2. Do you get a lift by splitting an infinitive or dangling a participle?
3. Have you ever awoken in the morning with no memory of your stylistic mistakes of the day before?
4. Do you sometimes mix metaphors to steady your nerves?
5. Have you ever argued with family members about your grammar?
6. Have you ever stopped misspelling, only to resume your old habits a few days later?
7. Has your punctuation ever caused difficulties at work or at home?
8. Do the phrases "past history," "advance warning," and "very unique" look all right to you?
9. Does your wordiness increase around the holidays?
10. Does indifference to syntax make you feel special?
If you're waiting for a scoring system, you're out of luck. There's no scoring on this quiz. A number can't tell you where you are in your struggle with malescribism. Only you can decide.CHAPTER 3
BELIEVE THAT STANDARD ENGLISH CAN HEAL YOU
(by Overcoming Suspicion)
In working through step 2, you admitted that you willingly had made writing errors. But will you continue to make them? The grip of malescribism is strong — too strong for most sufferers to overcome without help. So if you plan to take back your life and begin to write well again, you're going to need to admit the truth: your writing problem has become unmanageable. You've tried, exerted your willpower, and made promises to yourself. Yet you're still addicted to bad writing.
People who are in recovery from malescribism at some point came to understand that they couldn't do it on their own. They accepted the fact that they didn't have the power to overcome their addiction to bad writing. They eventually had to take a leap of faith and look to something bigger and more powerful for assistance.
A Greater Power
Malescribes in recovery all came to understand they needed help. They realized, reluctantly, that there was no shame in seeking guidance. And they eventually accepted the fact that there was a power greater than any individual writer. We call it Standard English.
Exactly what is Standard English? It's a collection of accepted guidelines for communicating effectively in print. Whereas malescribes wonder about what is correct, people who trust in Standard English know confidently that they are writing in a way that people will understand. It replaces guessing with order and certainty. It takes a burden off our shoulders, freeing us to focus on developing our ideas.
Despite the advantages of relying on Standard English, many malescribes have trouble trusting in this higher power. They are, in a word, suspicious. And their suspicion slows their progress toward recovery.
How Suspicion Works
Suspicion is a psychological mechanism that protects us from real or imagined threats. When properly channeled, it can save us embarrassment, heartache, or pain. But improperly channeled, suspicion can prevent us from seeing and taking advantage of opportunities. It can magnify potential problems and obscure potential payoffs.
Malescribes often take suspicion to unhealthy levels. So let's look at how suspicion can work to keep people from embracing Standard English and starting on the road to recovery.
When we encounter something new that is highly touted by others, we sometimes express our suspicions through confrontation. We vigorously challenge the proposed ideas and the sincerity of the people who believe in them. We are, in a sense, reverting to an instinctual response.
Excerpted from When Good People Write Bad Sentences by Robert W. Harris. Copyright © 2003 Robert W. Harris. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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