The Reader Is Cruising, Then the Writer Puts Up a Stop Sign

By Jack Limpert

As an editor, I always liked to imagine the reader out on the open road going 70 miles an hour in a convertible.  But plenty of stories came in puttering along at 40 miles an hour, and my goal always was to make them read faster. I didn’t like to change the writer’s language, but I was quick to cut words, sentences, paragraphs. And I found that most writers could live with that—it was still their language and they wanted to be read.

I always felt the greatest writing sin was putting stop signs in front of the reader. One I encountered almost every month was “former” and “latter.” An example:

“Robert Samuelson and Michael Gerson are the two most interesting, least predictable columnists on the Washington Post op-ed page, but the former surprisingly attracts more reader comments than the latter.” As a reader, that would stop me—who’s the former, who’s the latter?

It’s not a new problem. In some versions of the Bible:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

The former and latter construction is almost always a stop sign, making the reader go back to check as to who or what is former and who or what is latter.

Another stop sign is the overuse of acronyms.  The well-known ones—NIH, FDA, NFL—are usually not a problem. But some stories have five or more acronyms for various agencies and organizations. Our style was to write out the full name in the first mention with the acronym in parentheses, and then just use the acronym in subsequent mentions. But I often found cases where the name and acronym was used early in a story but then reappeared much later with just the acronym. The reader stops and thinks: IPS, what does that stand for?  When in doubt, repeat the full name of the organization.

Or the stories where a dozen experts are quoted. Sophie Gilbert, a writer, is quoted early in a theater story along with Gilbert Seldes and 10 others. Much later someone named Gilbert says something interesting. Where did I see something about someone named Gilbert? When in doubt, repeat the full name with a clue as to who the person is you’re quoting.

George Orwell, in his essay, “Politics and the English Language”, said: Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. Three more kinds of stop signs. The one that once made me cancel a magazine subscription was their use of a French phrase as a crucial part of the story’s ending. You’re going to make me feel stupid because I don’t speak French?

When in doubt, make it easy for the reader. Let the reader cruise along at 70 miles an hour and never see a stop sign.

Comments

  1. Great article! I wish the authors of the scientific papers my graduate school is forcing down my metaphorical throat would follow your advise about limiting the number of acronyms – they are notorious for using them. Ugh.

    Also – I really want to share this post on facebook and twitter (and can by copying and pasting the link) but might I suggest adding the “share this” widget on the posts? It may help others who are as lazy as I to share your work with their friends and followers in the future!

  2. Bob grumman says

    What’s wrong with forcing a reader to review? It might keep him from the ineffective speed-reading skim that too many readers are guilty of. Not that there aren’t other good reasons for using “latter” and “former.” Just do it with care, remembering the sensible advice given at this blog.

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