Harold Evans Wants Americans to Drop Their Bad-Writing Habit

Evans talks to Steve Coll about his new book on writing well

Courtesy of Thomson Reuters

It’s really very hard to not be self-conscious write unselfconsciously when the topic at hand is writing well.

Still, we appreciate the reminder to apply more thought to the words, phrases and sentences we all rush to construct in service to news writing’s imperative to write quickly.

Today’s refresher arrives thanks to Harold Evans, Reuters’ editor at large, former Sunday Times editor, former Random House publisher, Conde Nast Traveler founding editor, who discussed his latest book, Do I Make Myself Clear?, in a conversation with Columbia Journalism School dean Steve Coll this morning at a breakfast hosted by Reuters.

It’s not just clumsy news writing that Evans dissects, visuals projected onto a screen behind him to help illustrate his points. He goes after legal texts, the ACA and AHCA, even wordy office memos. “Language is under assault from so many places,” says Evans, and the benefit to cleaning it up is more than literary.

Dense pieces of legislation and legal documents are often designed so in a deliberate intent to obfuscate, whether to keep information away from the public or to allow the language to be manipulated to mean whatever its interpreter wants it to mean.

Those wanting to tighten their language can start with the specific categories of offending language that Evans points out, from the throat-clearing ways of “predatory clauses” to pleonasms (sample: “exact counterpart”) to “zombie words” like participation and realization, in which a “noun that has swallowed a verb and turned it into a piece of meat.”

While these language crimes apply to both print and digital writing, Evans is critical of how the internet has influenced writing, saying that “much of the web is cloudy and verbose.” Twitter, with its 140ish-character limit, might seem like an antidote, but it offers its own problematic contribution to society. Twitter “has degraded argument,” says Evans. “You don’t get argument on Twitter, you get assertion.” Still, Evans is a Twitter user himself. “I use it a lot. I abuse it occasionally.”

In a twist, it is the digital web’s visual side, which may seem like language’s greatest opponent, that Evans is not worried about. “The fact that it has a visual component doesn’t mean it doesn’t have thought beneath it,” he says.