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Alaskan Range: Needless Words

Greg Hill endorses a simple message to all those who write. Omit needless words.

“Great Recession” won’t be found in Webster’s, but the business reference site Investopedia.com defines it as “a buzz word that describes the recession that started on December 2007 in terms of the Great Depression of the 1930s.” The major dictionaries may be avoiding it since, as NY Times economics writer Catherine Rampell put it in 2009: “Nobody can take credit for coining the term “The Great Recession” during the last year. Why? … Every recession of the last several decades has, at some point or another, received this special designation.” She goes on to cite Great Recessions from 2001, two in the 1990s, several in the 1980s, and so on.

The Great Depression of 1929-1940 is the standard they’re all measured by. The stock market crash was worsened by severe droughts and dust storms that began in 1931. Thirty-eight major dust storms ravaged the Great Plains in 1933 alone, the following year drought affected three-fourths of the country, and 1935 saw AP reporter Robert Geiger coin the expression “Dust Bowl” after he witnessed “Black Sunday,” the worst dust storm of all, when an estimated 850 tons of topsoil were blown away on April 14.

Tens of thousands of small farmers lost their livelihoods and headed to California seeking work as produce pickers. John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” is the iconic novel of the event. His inspiration for it came from a Life magazine assignment to accompany a photographer to report on the poverty and desperation. However, Steinbeck wrote to his agent, “I’m sorry, but I simply can’t make money on these people … The suffering is too great for me to cash in on it.”

Not so famed, photographer Dorothea Lange. She snapped the iconic photo of the great migration, a picture of a deeply worried woman staring off as two small children bury their heads in her neck. Lange wrote that she “approached the hungry and desperate mother” whose family was living “on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields” and had “just sold the tires on her car to buy food.” In reality the woman was Florence Owens, a Native American farm worker union organizer whose husband had taken their car into town for repairs. She was worried that her husband hadn’t received her message about having to relocate their tent. Her children clearly recall Lange promising their mother she wouldn’t publish the photo, but she did just that soon thereafter. “What upsets us,” her children wrote, “is that people are making money out of our mother’s pain.”

It’s hard to avoid reflecting on things economic what with the congressional budget impasse in full flower. Some commentators call it an example of “tyranny of the minority” or “minoritarianism,” and that’s what got me into the library profession. A secretary and I were the entire legislative staff of a Texas representative who wanted some examples of minoritarianism to cite. The secretary insisted research was beneath her, so I scampered over to the Legislative Reference Library. There I met the director who helped guide my search. I returned many times, and when the Texas Legislature had lost its charm, the LRL director offered to hire me if I went to library school. I did, and wound up happily in Alaska.

The legislature, where a wrong word or misplaced comma could mean disaster, is also where I learned the importance of clear writing. For example, avoiding “vague” nouns. Instead of “He’s an expert in the area of obfuscation,” use “He’s an expert in obfuscation.” Also avoiding “expletives,” making sentences like “There are many reasons the negotiations failed,” read as “Many reasons caused the negotiation’s failure.”

Most of all use the active voice, because doing so will avoid the so-called “copulative verbs,” like “be,” “is,” or “are.” So “Congress will be cleaned up by angry voters in the next election” becomes “Angry voters will clean up Congress in the next election.” You get the idea.

For my money, the epitome of clear writing is “Elements of Style” by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. “When a sentence is made stronger,” professor Strunk noted, “it usually becomes shorter. Thus brevity is a by-product of vigor … Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”


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