Some reaction to Jacques Barzun’s advice that you should not write as you speak:
Henry Fowler, author of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, said it better and earlier than Barzun: “Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched. Prefer the concrete word to the abstract. Prefer the single word to the circumlocution. Prefer the short word to the long. Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.”
If you speak a language other than the one you are writing in, translate your idea as best you can into your second language and then translate that version back into the language in which you are writing.
I speak Spanish with a good inflection but a limited vocabulary. So when I have an English thought that’s coming out a little wordy or inelegant, I go to the Spanish, which forces me to say the idea in a simpler, shorter, and clearer way. When you don’t know enough words to be wordy, you usually aren’t.
I translate the Spanish into English, and it’s always a bit shorter and usually more pointed.
In the guidelines sent to prospective writers by the Washingtonian, we included these suggestions:
We have no rules on writing style. The style should come naturally from the writer and the material. In The Elements of Style, William Strunk made these suggestions:
—Be specific, concrete, definite.
—Use the active rather than the passive voice.
—Put the statements in positive form.
—Write with nouns and verbs.
—Avoid the use of qualifiers.
—Don’t explain too much.
—Avoid fancy words.
In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell pointed to these sins of bad writing: “Staleness of imagery . . . lack of precision . . . the concrete melts into the abstract . . . a lack of simple verbs.”
Some of Orwell’s suggestions:
—Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
—Never use a long word where a short one will do.
—If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
—Never use the passive where you can use the active.
—Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
—Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
The Washingtonian’s advice to its writers: Speak to the reader as an intelligent friend. The best style is clear, honest, and direct. We like sophisticated ideas and simple language, not the reverse. And don’t forget the favorite question of the late New Yorker editor Harold Ross: “What the hell do you mean?”