Editor’s Note: Adfero colleagues Chris Battle and Justin Hienz agreed to a playful blog duel about word choice and good writing. You can read Chris’s post here.
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. This applies in geography as well as language. In writing, the shortest distance between my thought and yours is direct phrasing and exact word choice. My goal when writing is to fully transfer thought from my own mind to my readers’ without corrupting, diluting or polluting the pure thought.
Drawing from twentieth-century thinkers in the postmodern/deconstructionist schools, language is understood as a structure humans impose on the world. It’s easy to forget that language is not inherent. Our thoughts don’t emerge as words; yet, to be understood, one must translate thought to language. This is no easy task, one that requires precision and a focus on relaying meaning. Extra words, words with little to no meaning, or words that are not recognized or understood by most readers do not help this process. They hurt it. They get in the way and are stumbling blocks to full comprehension.
To that end, I have stricken several words from my written vocabulary. A few include utilize, very and well as a modifier. When I tried to explain the value and logic of this to Adfero partner and fellow writer Chris Battle, he called me an elitist and laughed. And so a debate over word choice has raged at Adfero and on the streets of Washington, DC.
In one corner we have Battle, a consummate and emotional writer, a skilled journalist with years of experience playing with words and meaning, and also an expert communications strategist who understands words as tools, all of which may be useful in the quest to explain oneself.
In the other corner we have me. I’m also a writer and a PR guy.
Battle says, if it’s in the Oxford English Dictionary, then it’s a word, and he wants to be able to use it when he has reason to based on the kind of emotion he’s trying to elicit or the rhythm or meter of the phrase or for a variety of other reasons.
I say, there’s more than one way to write a cat, and if you avoid the easy, meaningless words, a world of clearer phrasing awaits you.
My voice is not definitive, and it makes no difference to me if Battle and others want to lug around a ten-ton dictionary because it is comforting to know they have every word at their disposal, even if they never use them all.
Me, I’m only concerned with words that have clear and powerful meaning.
Certainly meaning isn’t only relayed in definition. Context, phrasing and word combinations can convey meaning that transcends definition, such as with a complex emotion. But not all writing requires that kind of nuance, and I don’t like to play games with my readers in any case. If I have something to say, I write directly and with words that most easily translate back to pure thought in my readers’ minds.
Show me an instance where utilize is clearer than use, when very is clearer than a descriptive modifier or, hell, any other word. I’m not concerned with waxing hypothetical. In practice, these words have little to no place in effective, cogent writing.
Now, Battle is surely hopping mad at this point. “But we do use very,” I can almost hear him saying. “It is meaningful in how it is used and in what context.”
Enter Ernest Hemingway.
As it happens, The Sun Also Rises inspired both Battle and me, decades ago respectively, to pursue writing as a profession. Hemingway was a powerful writer, with the ability to inspire readers as well as would-be writers. And as Battle has noted ad nauseam, “he used very all the time!”
But let’s not forget Samuel Clemens’ (aka Mark Twain) famous line: “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Hmmm. Two great American writers, clearly at odds with one another. What is one to do?
In the end, I won’t convince Battle that my position is correct; nor will he convince me. Writing is a subjective art, not an exact science. There is no right answer, though there is better practice. I will accept that a good writer must be open to all words when crafting prose, if Battle and like-minded writers will accept that, outside of that rare, magic moment when utilize is the right word, in almost every other case, it is not.
And by that measure, less is almost always more.
Recent Posts By Justin Hienz
- Attention PR Execs: How NOT to Pitch a Blogger - November 23rd, 2010
- Ignoring writing style? Why don’t you just come to work in your pajamas? - October 4th, 2010