Hoe niets vertellen met 500 woorden

door Vulpius

Fijn — vandaag tegen het lijf gelopen: “How to Say Nothing in 500 Words” (als Word doc), door Paul McHenry Roberts.

Geschreven zo rond 1950, maar nog steeds vol fijne fragmenten…

It’s Friday afternoon, and you have almost survived another week of classes. You are just looking forward dreamily to the weekend when the English instructor says: “For Monday you will turn in a five hundred-word composition on college football.”

After dinner you get out the portable typewriter that you got for high school graduation. You might as well get it over with and enjoy Saturday and Sunday. Five hundred words is about two double-spaced pages with normal margins. You put in a sheet of paper, think up a title, and you’re off:

College football should be abolished because it’s bad for the school and also for the players. The players are so busy practicing that they don’t have any time for their studies.

This, you feel, is a mighty good start. The only trouble is that it’s only thirty-two words. You still have four hundred and sixty-eight to go, and you’ve pretty well exhausted the subject. […] You make a pot of coffee and start to fill out your views on college football. Put a little meat on the bones. […]

De rest is een boeiende beschrijving van wat goeie schrijvers goed maakt, en hoe je teksten en essays kan verbeteren.

Well, you may ask, what can you do about it? The subject is one on which you have few convictions and little information. Can you be expected to make a dull subject interesting? As a matter of fact, this is precisely what you are expected to do. This is the writer’s essential task. All subjects, except sex, are dull until somebody makes them interesting. The writer’s job is to find the argument, the approach, the angle, the wording that will take the reader with him. This is seldom easy, and it is particularly hard in subjects that have been much discussed.

De tips? Mooi samengevat hieronder. Ik laat het lezen van de volledige tekst aan u over.

Avoid the obvious content

Sometimes it is a good idea to sum up and dispose of the trite and conventional points before going on to your own. This has the advantage of indicating to the reader that you are going to be neither trite nor conventional.

Take the less usual side

One rather simple way of getting into your paper is to take the side of the argument that most of the citizens will want to avoid. Don’t worry too much about figuring out what the instructor thinks about the subject so that you can cuddle up with him. Chances are his views are no stronger than yours. If he does have convictions and you oppose him, his problem is to keep from grading you higher than you deserve in order to show he is not biased. This doesn’t mean that you should always cantankerously dissent from what the instructor says; that gets tiresome too. And if the subject assigned is “My Pet Peeve,” do not begin, “My pet peeve is the English instructor who assigns papers on ‘my pet peeve.”‘ This was still funny during the War of 1812, but it has sort of lost its edge since then. It is in general good manners to avoid personalities.

Slip out of abstraction

If you will study the essay on college football [near the beginning of this essay], you will perceive that one reason for its appalling dullness is that it never gets down to particulars. It is just a series of not very glittering generalities. Look at the work of any professional writer and notice how constantly he is moving from the generality, the abstract statement, to the concrete example, the facts and figures, the illustrations. It is no doubt possible to be too concrete, too illustrative or anecdotal, but few inexperienced writers err this way. For most the soundest advice is to be seeking always for the picture, to be always turning general remarks into seeable examples. Don’t say, “Sororities teach girls the social graces.” Say, “Sorority life teaches a girl how to carry on a conversation while pouring tea, without sloshing the tea into the saucer.” Don’t say, “I like certain kinds of popular music very much.” Say, “Whenever I hear Gerber Sprinklittle play ‘Mississippi Man’ on the trombone, my socks creep up my ankles.”

Get rid of obvious padding

The student toiling away at his weekly English theme is too often tormented by a figure: five hundred words. How, he asks himself, is he to achieve this staggering total? Obviously by never using one word when he can somehow work in ten. Now this is a way to go about reaching five hundred words, and if you are content with a “D” grade, it is as good a way as any. But if you aim higher, you must work differently. Instead of stuffing your sentences with straw, you must try steadily to get rid of the padding, to make your sentences lean and tough. If you are really working at it, your first draft will greatly exceed the required total, and then you will work it down. You may ask how you can arrive at five hundred words at this rate. Simple. You dig up more real content. Instead of taking a couple of obvious points off the surface of the topic and then circling warily around them for six paragraphs, you work in and explore, figure out the details. You illustrate. You say that fast driving is dangerous, and then you prove it. How long does it take to stop a car at forty and at eighty? How far can you see at night? What happens when a tire blows? What happens in a head-on collision at fifty miles an hour?

Call a fool a fool

Some of the padding in freshman themes is to be blamed not on anxiety about the word minimum but on excessive timidity. Hedging the thing about with “in-my-opinion’s” and “it-seems-to-me’s” and “as-I-see-it’s” and “at-least-from-my-point-of-view’s” gains you nothing. Delete these phrases whenever they creep into your paper. Decide what you want to say and say it as vigorously as possible, without apology and in plain words.

Beware of pat expressions

Other things being equal, avoid phrases like “other things being equal.” Those sentences that come to you whole, or in two or three doughy lumps, are sure to be bad sentences. They are no creation of yours but pieces of common thought floating in the community soup. Pat expressions are hard, often impossible, to avoid, because they come too easily to be noticed and seem too necessary to be dispensed with. No writer avoids them altogether, but good writers avoid them more often than poor writers.

Colorful words

The writer builds with words, and no builder uses a raw material more slippery and elusive and treacherous. A writer’s work is a constant struggle to get the right word in the right place, to find that particular word that will convey his meaning exactly, that will persuade the reader or soothe him or startle or amuse him. Some words are what we call “colorful.” By this we mean that they are calculated to produce a picture or induce an emotion. In place of “Her heart beat,” we may write, “her heart pounded, throbbed, fluttered, danced.” However, it should not be supposed that the fancy word is always better. Ages differ in how they like their prose. The nineteenth century liked it rich and smoky. The twentieth has usually preferred it lean and cool. The twentieth century writer, like all writers, is forever seeking the exact word, but he is wary of sounding feverish. He tends to pitch it low, to understate it, to throw it away. He knows that if he gets too colorful, the audience is likely to giggle.

Colored words

Some words we would call not so much colorful as colored — that is, loaded with associations, good or bad. All words — except perhaps structure words — have associations of some sort. We have said that the meaning of a word is the sum of the contexts in which it occurs. When we hear a word, we hear with it an echo of all the situations in which we have heard it before. The question of whether to use loaded words or not depends on what is being written. The scientist, the scholar, try to avoid them; for the poet, the advertising writer, the public speaker, they are standard equipment. But every writer should take care that they do not substitute for thought. It is always a bad mistake to think your readers more naive than they really are.

Colorless words

But probably most student writers come to grief not with words that are colorful or those that are colored but with those that have no color at all. Colorless words are those of such general meaning that in a particular sentence they mean nothing. Slang adjectives like “cool” tend to explode all over the language. They are applied to everything, lose their original force, and quickly die. Beware also of nouns of very general meaning. Notice also what etc. means. It means “I’d like to make this list longer, but I can’t think of any more examples.”