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Michael Crowell reminded me about a memo on clear writing that Alfred Kahn issued to the staff of the Civil Aeronautics Board when he served as its Chair. It is a classic.

Kahn begins by enlisting their support in the fight against “the artificial and hyper-legal language that is sometimes known as bureaucratese or gobbledygook. The disease is almost universal, and the fight against it endless.” He asks the staff to “try very hard to write . . . in straightforward, quasi-conversational, humane prose–as though you are talking to or communicating with real people.” What a concept.

He encourages people to apply the following test to their writing: “try reading some of the language you use aloud, and ask yourself how your friends would be likely to react. (And then decide, on the basis of their reactions, whether you still want them as friends.)”

Kahn continues by listing “a small fraction of the kinds of usages I have in mind.” One of the usual suspects is the passive voice. “Typically, its purpose is to conceal information: one is less likely to be jailed if one says ‘he was hit by a stone,’ than ‘I hit him with a stone.’ The active voice is far more forthright, direct, and humane.”

I encourage you to read Kahn’s memo. It is short and packed with worthwhile and entertaining advice. He closes by saying that a “final example of pomposity, probably, is this memorandum itself. I have heard it said that style is not substance, but without style what is substance?”

Any other advice about good writing we should know about?

2 thoughts on “More Advice about Good Writing

  1. When Michael first shared the Kahn memo with some of us a few years ago, I made it required reading for my law students – it’s worth the read!

  2. Let us not forget the classic essay by George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.”

    He offers six rules that mirror Kahn’s advice.

    1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

    The entire essay is brilliant, so I highly recommend it. Here is a link to the Wikipedia entry about it.

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