Alphabet Aerobics

Seth Godin has a post up that I like a lot. It’s a short one, like most of his posts, which I’ve grown to really appreciate. In full:

How is your vocabulary? It’s a vital tool, certainly. Do you know these words?

a, after, and, as, die, eternal, first, gets, gun, have, in, is, job, life, me, mouth, my, pushing, saying, step, that, the, to, Tyler, waiter, you.

How about these?

a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.

The first list contains every word in the opening lines from Fight Club, the second is the entire word list from Green Eggs and Ham. Of course, neither you nor I wrote either of these, regardless of how well trained we are in what the words (the tools) mean.

Knowing about a tool is one thing. Having the guts to use it in a way that brings art to the world is another. Perhaps we need to spend less time learning new tools and more time using them.

Couldn’t agree more with the bolded part. Knowing big and fancy words is fine, but they aren’t all that useful most of the time.

When I was in high school, especially my freshman and sophomore year, I had no clue how to write. I had a good vocab, but I just wanted to use big words for shits and giggles. It took me a good while before I realized that no matter how entertained I was by knowing the meaning of “perspicacious,” there really wasn’t much point to using the term.

Taking masscomm classes definitely steered me further towards brevity and maybe if I had taken writing classes I would’ve tacked back towards creative writing prose. But reading people who drop five-syllable doozies every other words just irritates me now, particularly if the writing is academic. Mohammed Arkoun, whose prose I had to slog through a few months ago, was absolutely intolerable. Utterly indecipherable. Reading his essay, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Arkoun cares way more about proving he’s smarter than you than he does about you understanding him.

Wordy writing doesn’t have to come off that way. David Foster Wallace’s writing is as loquacious* as anything, but he also exudes a terrific sense of self-deprecation. That alone makes his writing much more digestable.

I’d never be DFW anyway. But I think my writing has improved a lot as I’ve gotten increasingly less concerned with forming pretty phrases and just focused on conveying a message in the clearest way possible. That, though, might reflect writing style as mandated by career choice and intended audience as it does “improvement” or “progress.”

* yeah, couldn’t help it.

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