About Editing

Editors at Work: Preaching the Virtues of Fowler, Strunk, and Orwell

By Jack Limpert

Frank Waldrop, the editor of the Washington Times-Herald before it was bought and killed by the Washington Post in 1954, was my early Washington mentor. Frank lived most of the 20th century—from 1905 to 1997—and he was a tough, old-fashioned newspaperman. Here are three pieces of his writing  advice.

1. Who was it that said “First, murder your darlings” to the friend who set out to write? Whoever he was, he knew himself and he knew the writer’s dangers, attachment to some “airs and graces” as Fowler calls them, that stand in the way of directness and plain speaking.

2. The first obligation of any writer to remember is that he is writing not to show how clever he is but to tell somebody else something he wants that other person to understand. That’s what old Fowler stood up for in The King’s English, and there ain’t no better place to stand.

3. “Fowler” means H.W. an F.G., brothers, lexicographers, grammarians. They wrote:

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.
At The Washingtonian, I had something called “Notes for Writers” that we sent out to anyone wanting to write for us. It explained what kind of magazine it was, what kind of stories we were looking for, and it included these suggestions:

Our readers are not a “mass” audience. The implication for the writer is that you do not have to write down to the reader. You do have to write clearly, directly, and intelligently. Our readers recognize underreporting, overwriting, preaching, unclear thinking, and pseudo-sophistication when they see it.

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.
Don’t overstate.
Avoid the use of qualifiers.
Don’t explain too much.
Avoid fancy words.
Be clear.

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.

One last word: 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?”

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