Politics and the English Editor


Review of Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters, by Harold Evans

Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2017

The title of Harold Evans’s new book asks a question, but it is not the right one. The book is Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters, and its promotional material promises to offer “timeless tools for making meaning clear.” Evans’s bibliography lists over fifty writing guides, plus many more usage and grammar books, all of which prompt a more meaningful inquiry. With so much advice already available – from luminaries such as George Orwell, William F. Buckley, Bryan Garner, Robert Graves, Jacques Barzun, Stephen King, William Safire, Helen Sword, and William Zinsser – do we really need another book on style and composition? Granting Evans’s near legendary status as both an author and an editor, does he actually have anything new and helpful to say? Alas, he does not.

Do I Make Myself Clear? covers entirely familiar ground at a length of nearly 400 pages. It is witty and stylish, as one would expect from Evans, but his directives point only to the usual suspects (including a warning against clichés). The later chapters take up the subtitle – Why Writing Well Matters – but Evans ends up blaming all manner of political and corporate misdeeds on ambiguous language, rather than reckless policies or outright avarice. Evans has surely earned the right to publish his thoughts on writing – in addition to his two best-selling histories, he was knighted in 2004 for his contributions to British journalism – but anyone looking for fresh insights will come away disappointed.

The first five chapters – collectively called “Tools of the Trade” – can be summarized as calling for short sentences consisting of mostly two- and three-syllable words, except when longer sentences are better. Whatever their length, sentences should introduce their subject matter at the beginning, unless the payoff is best saved for the end. Examples are provided in a chapter titled “The Sentence Clinic,” which counsels against passive voice and other mistakes. No, that wasn’t right; try this: “The Sentence Clinic” provides examples of mistakes such as the passive voice. Evans also shows how sentences of eighteen words can be pared to twelve.

Rigorous editing, Evans assures us, can accomplish great things. A paragraph trimmed of 41 words can save each reader thirty seconds, or a cumulative eight hours for 500,000 people, which Evans calls “the hidden arithmetic of verbosity.” (p. 100.) Actually, the per capita recovery is closer to 12 seconds, given the national average reading speed of 200 words per minute – but who needs precision when your readership seems capable of storing micro-bursts of spare time for later use? (Perhaps Evans’s calculation was intended to be wry or ironic, but I doubt it. He gives us seeming scores of examples of artfully clipped sentences with revised word counts. No one doubts that excision is a good thing, but we rather get the point after the first half-dozen specimens.)

Notwithstanding his admonition to “cut the fat” (p. 98), Evans’s book is filled – oops, Evans fills his book – with allusions and images that do nothing to elucidate the underlying point. For example, “I call an overweening prefatory element predatory because it steals the reader’s attention and clogs cerebral arteries.” (p. 52.) The so-called predatory clause – that is, the insertion of a long dependent clause at the beginning of a sentence – is one of Evans’s great bêtes noires. Nonetheless, his condemnation could have ended more efficiently with a full stop after “attention.” The subsequent reference to clogged arteries does not contribute anything to his argument, but it does introduce a mixed metaphor, given the discontinuity between theft and sclerosis. Allusions can be useful when they explain something or evoke a common understanding, but most writers would benefit from eliminating distracting and unnecessary figures of speech. Then they could, in Evans’s words, “Give thanks to how small changes in English, like laundry detergent, can add brightness to lightness and cost you less.” (P. 85). Yes, that’s just the lesson for aspiring authors, who would do well to keep laundry detergent firmly in mind as they write. And don’t forget to pre-soak.

Stephen King believes that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs,” and Evans agrees. “Most ly adverbs don’t enhance,” he says. “They enfeeble.” (p. 95) Moreover, they add “bloat and nonsense” when modifying absolutes. “There is no such condition as nearly unanimous,” according to Evans. “The vote is either unanimous or not.” (p. 97.) Except, of course, that the implications of an overwhelming vote may be far from nonsensical. A nearly unanimous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court (8-1) is likely to be more enduring than a bare majority (5-4), as the latter may be subject to reversal should a justice on the winning side happen to retire. Evans probably meant that there is no such condition as very unanimous, which is a literal impossibility that has nothing to do with poorly deployed adverbs.

Chapter Four stakes out “Ten Shortcuts to Making Yourself Clear,” all of which make sense and none of which will surprise anyone who has taken a college writing course. Here you will encounter dependable instructions to avoid passive voice, include specific details, use parallel constructions, vary sentence structures, disdain elegant variation (which he calls “monologophopia”), and shun prepositional verbs such as met up with, test out, and consult with. The latter unfortunately “grow like toadstools,” he adds (p. 120), without alerting us that toadstool residue can be washed out with laundry detergent before it clogs the cerebral arteries.

So much for form. One must also “care for meanings” by employing the right word for the job. (P. 192.) Thus, Evans provides us with a lengthy “glossary” of misuses and annoyances to guide us in proper word choice. Here is the first entry:

Admit/Acknowledge: Admit is freighted with bias; it implies the reluctant admission of guilt. Used often by a writer afflicted with monologophbia who is desperate not to repeat the proper neutral word said or acknowledge. (p. 204; boldface and italics original.)

Shall I acknowledge that I skimmed the rest of Evans’s eighteen page “collection of pet peeves”? No. I must admit that I skipped it.

There is an undeniable relationship between bad writing and bad politics, as George Orwell first observed in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Evans’s final section on “Consequences” takes Orwell’s generalization much further, arguing that poor writing leads to direct harm in the real world. Here he takes aim at soft targets, pointing out the turgid bafflements of legal, bureaucratic, and corporate writing. But is it really the case, as Evans posits, that better drafting could actually make a measurable difference in peoples’ lives? His examples do not bear him out.

During the years 2002-14, a faulty ignition switch in the Chevrolet Cobalt caused at least 124 deaths and 274 serious injuries. Personal injury litigation eventually revealed that executives at General Motors had long been aware of the problem but had not taken steps to prevent the nearly inevitable fatalities.

Evans attributes this tragedy to bad writing. Tracing various drafts of the intra-corporate memorandums about the ignition switch, he notes that key words such as “stall” and “safety” were removed from the anodyne final versions, which therefore failed to raise the appropriate level of alarm as they moved up the chain of command. “GM managers remained mesmerized by the language of convenience,” says Evans, explaining that they “were in solitary confinement, imprisoned by language.” (P. 270.)

But wait. The omissions in the internal GM memos were intentional, not inadvertent. No one hypnotically chose a suboptimal word or failed to run a memo past an exacting editor. Rather, the memo writers deliberately deemphasized the hazardous ignition defect in an attempt to minimize expenses. When GM did issue a recall, it advised customers only that “In rare cases, when a combination of factors is present, a Chevrolet driver can cut power to the engine by inadvertently moving the key to the off position,” saying nothing of the potential for deadly air bag malfunctions. (P. 271.) GM’s failure to mention the extreme danger of the condition was inexcusable, but it was not a style or usage error. The concealment of the safety issue was the result of an irresponsible corporate culture in which the missing quality was honesty, not clarity.

Evans, however, sees good writing as a panacea for all manner of social, economic, legal, and political ills. Bad writing, on the other hand, can be blamed for problems ranging from the financial crisis of 2008 (no kidding; see pp. 264-66), to the anti-vaccination movement (p. 286), to widespread resistance to Obamacare. Regarding the latter, Evans writes,

The point for Do I Make Myself Clear? is that the lack of clarity in the bill worked against the express purpose of popularizing the legislation, so it was vulnerable to misrepresentation. . . . Consider the furor over “death panels.” (P. 302.)

Now, it is true that Sarah Palin set off a storm of outrage when she falsely claimed that “My parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their level of productivity in society, whether they are worthy of health care.” But it is hard to see how better legislative drafting could have prevented the assault.

The basis of Palin’s claim was a proposed section of the Affordable Care Act that allowed reimbursement for physicians who provide voluntary counseling to patients about advance directives, living wills, and other end-of-life plans. There was nothing in the section – which had been initially sponsored by Republican congressman, and surgeon, Charles Boustany – that remotely rationed medical care for the disabled, elderly, or anyone else. Rather, it simply covered the cost of a service that many patients would find useful and reassuring.

Palin’s assertion was nothing more than an attractive lie that was picked up and exploited by political charlatans and talk radio hosts (but I repeat myself). The death panel myth was based on an outright falsehood, rather than misinterpreted or poorly drafted language. Thus, there was no amount of legislative clarity that could have prevented it from taking root. How could the bill possibly have been written to head off partisan hysteria over a non-existent provision? Even if the ACA had been titled the “No Such Thing as Death Panels Act,” Palin and her allies would have conjured some other imaginary atrocity to exploit.

It is true, of course, that the ACA is long and intricate, with many technical provisions that are obscure to the public. But complexity is unavoidable in a statute that affects fully one sixth of the U.S. economy. The notion that it could have been made simple and readable, and thereby more popular, is as illusory as, well, death panels.

Do I Make Myself Clear? has some engaging and enjoyable moments, and it will no doubt appeal to fans of Evans’s other writing. Everyone else, however, will likely find it wordy and overblown. There are a few worthwhile essays buried in the book, and it is too bad they were not excavated by a demanding editor.

Posted on 12 June 2017

STEVEN LUBET is the Williams Memorial Professor of Law at Northwestern University.