How to Write in the Concrete
I owe everyone a huge apology. Two weeks ago, I told you about the summer I learned to type. I included this sentence in the original: “I could bang out 17 words a minute with no more that six or seven mistakes.” Mindy, who sends the Tips to you, thought I did it on purpose because the typo appeared in a sentence about making typos. And because she knows I have a weakness for irony, hidden jokes, and generally stupid, tongue-in-cheek stuff, she thought, "How deliciously ironic." Although still ironic, that was a real typo, but I thought, "What a great idea!" Then I thought, Even better, instead of that-which-should-be-than, let's make it sex-which-should-be-six. That way, nobody will miss the joke. HaHA!
I laughed so hard, I drooled. I was having a great time, until your responses to that sentence nearly jammed our server: “Uh, Mr. Kinder, I think you meant six.” But I accept full responsibility for the misunderstanding: I completely forgot that in the Digital Age, we all need a laugh track to tell us what's supposed to be funny. Even if it isn't. Like a TV sitcom. But how could you do that in an article? Without Jennifer Aniston?
So I got to thinking about this, and I wondered, Is it possible? And I thought, No! It can't be done! But then I talked to the WordRake engineers, and they said they would try, and, by golly, they invented a laugh track for written words! (These guys are amazing.) That way, from now on, you don’t have to figure out when to laugh. We do it all for you. (ha, ha.) And for a little extra, we will even laugh so you don’t have to (whoa ho ho). Now, when I go sideways entertaining myself, I will leave none of you behind. Just kidding; I’ll still lose some of you. (Laugh out loud.)
And now, with no segue whatsoever (chuckle), I present to you Rule 12 from The Elements of Style:
Use definite, specific, concrete language.
After we remove useless words (ha, no joke, that’s what WordRake does), we now have room to capture our reader’s imagination with vivid detail. Over 40 years ago, I read Strunk and White’s before and after examples of Rule 12; I still remember them, and I am typing them now from memory. (Smile, shake of the head. Amazing.):
vague: A period of unfavorable weather set in.
specific: It rained every day for a week.
Memorize those two sentences. Understand the difference. Strunk and White opine, “The surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete.” (Scream, bend over, laugh hysteri . . . . No, no, wait, I’m sorry, I have to reset this laugh track thing; that wasn't supposed to be funny. Here, let me try it again: Charlie Sheen. (Ahaha!) Okay, it's working again.) “The greatest writers," say Strunk and White, "are effective largely because their words call up pictures.”
Now you say, Well that's just great for Flaubert, but we're trying to win a contract to pick up the garbage of a mid-size city. We want to open by complimenting the mayor and city council. (Ha ha, are you sure?) Why can't we write:
The City’s hard work has led to a bustling array of businesses, quality community services, bountiful recreation opportunities, and welcoming places for the community to gather.
Wow! We would have to work really, really hard to be more vague than that. Bustling array? That conjures a gaggle of Victorian women with colored parasols. (Nod, grin, snort.) What really happened? Are we talking boutiques and wine shops and tapas bars, here? (Dope slap.) Little League parks and real grass soccer fields and jogging trails with a parcourse? A skateboard park. Shuffleboard and teeter totters and horseshoes and chess boards and gazebos and water fountains that spurt from the ground? We need to pick one or a few to give the commissioners something to help them picture what we mean by "the City's hard work." Then we get the mayor and the council involved, we get them to listen, to understand, to appreciate, to act, and to have us pick up their garbage. But words like bustling array, quality services, bountiful opportunities, and welcoming places get them, and the rest of us, to do nothing but yawn. (Seriously.) Remember the trick: use words people can see: We can't see bountiful opportunities.
That’s the tip for this week. I hope the laugh track helped. If you still think you’re missing the humor, it sometimes helps to have someone read the tip to you, someone who will get the jokes, like your seven-year-old in the back seat. She will understand (chuckle). Seven-year-olds get me. (Smack forehead, wince, bark like a seal.)