In Paragraph City, April is aphoristic. Students, administration and faculty alike salt their speech with emphatic, absolutist statements that in a less determined season they take much effort to avoid, preferring a mollycoddled language rich in hedge words, such as “somewhat” or “sorta,” and such milquetoast phrases as “mostath’time” or “under the proper conditions” or “in a certain light.”
Ever the slave to fashion, this spring I find myself spouting the following dozen axioms in my writing classes. So much so that this April the only graffiti found in Paragraph City consists of these twelve statements. We see them emblazoned in bright, balloon letters on freight cars in the Paragraph City rail yard and on subway walls. It’s redundant, actually, that stonemasons have chiseled them in the granite lintels over the writing classroom doors.
- What you leave out is as important as what you include.
- Judge every word on what effect it will have on the reader.
- The first paragraph is a promise that the body of the essay lives up to and the conclusion must honor.
- If you want the reader to remember something, show it by speaking to the reader’s senses.
- Find your own fresh wording. Repeating packaged phrases isn’t safe; it’s numbing.
- Verbs carry the most meaning; scour your vocabulary to find the just-right word.
- When you have finished what you’ve written and it’s looking pretty good, if you can cut it by 25 to 30% it will be better.
- Read what you’ve written aloud. Trust your ear. If something you’ve written sounds odd, re-write it five different ways and choose the one that sounds best.
- Write from richness. Have more than you can use – more facts, more comparisons, more explanations, more examples – so you can pick the best to use.
- Never write “in conclusion” or “needless to say” or other words that are only for the sake of the words and not of their sense. Think hard about getting read of “very” too.
- Pay attention to what your words are saying. If you don’t, they’ll go off and say something idiotic.
- Read all the time. Read everything. Ask yourself why the author put it this way. Mentally revise everything you read and see if it gets better.
If all this sounds much like Strunk and White, well, they started it.