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Art of Writing Debased
by Jake Highton
Nov 20, 2010 | 806 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Every day writers pour out clichés, space-wasters and misused words. Yet one writer uses them and many writers do likewise.

Since 9/11 horrific has become a terrible cliché. A “horrific toll.” A “horrific wildfire.”

Another is icon or iconic. The New York skyline is iconic. The French bistro is iconic. She is a Tea Party icon.

People are “called out” rather than criticized. Businesses “go south” rather than decline. Some authors still write utilize instead of use. Writer Russell Baker rightly calls utilize “a fat, greasy, dripping word.”

Another cliché is existential as in “existential suffering.” Writers should be ashamed to write some variation of  “round up the usual suspects.” Another cliché from the film “Casablanca” — “shocked, shocked.”

Narrative is another cliché as in Obama’s “unconvincing narrative.” Everything is book-ended or framed.

And here’s another: “He may end up a Yankee in 2011. Or not.” And how about channeling? Clinton “came close to channeling Albright.”

A golfer shoots a 59. Sports writers call it a “magic number.” Magic has nothing to with it. Rodriguez reaches a “magical milestone” of 600 home runs. Magic had nothing to do with it—although steroids did.

And how about the silly “changing the world forever”? Or this awful mannerism: “vindication for the Bush, er, Obama Administration.”

Writers wearisomely use the F-word, C-word, N-word and every other letter-of-the-alphabet word.         

Unthinking writers refer to invited guests or a young child. Someone dies “unexpectedly” of a heart attack or in a car crash.

So many of these annoyances can be found in a recent book by Robert Kuttner on President Obama, “A Presidency in Peril.”

He speaks of “Bush’s watch,” “an accident waiting to happen,” “at the end of the day” and “boots on the ground.” Everyone said famously.

Kuttner’s book is riddled with lame qualifiers like rather and somewhat.  We get “rather sweeping generalizations.” Something is “somewhat annoying.”

Kuttner constantly talks of “populist anger” and  “rightwing populists” with a total misunderstanding of what populism is: progressivism and anti-corporatism.

He uses the aggravating “of course”: “This is, of course, appalling politics.” Or: “He was, of course, a stalking horse.”

Kuttner uses the double preposition “at about.” He uses “prior to” rather than “before.” He writes that someone “deserved to be thrown under the proverbial  bus.” No such proverb exists. 

Some writers insist on turning nouns into verbs: “He summited Everest” or “Obama  guested on the program.” Or this abomination: “to trial this theory.”

Others adopt mannerisms such as: “The problem is, well, everything else.” Or, “the prosecutor had insisted on, gasp, fighting corruption.”

Some don’t know the difference between principle and principal. Some writers still mistake “it’s” for the possessive adjective. We read that someone “currently is writing a book.” Is is current. Some writers wrongly attach adverbs to adjectives as in “badly-written book.”

Political reporters turn signature into a cliché. Obama’s “signature healthcare reform.” Nixon’s “signature” mordancy.

Grammar eludes some writers: “just like our coaches predicted.” It should be the conjunction “as” and not the preposition like.

Writers flounder on words. “He was reticent to act.” No, he was reluctant to act.“ He “claimed” he was innocent. No, he said he was innocent. The coach “rocketed to notoriety.” No, the coach rocketed to fame. Some writers don’t know the difference between infamous and famous.

Nearly all writers put the adverb only in the wrong place: “I only have eyes for you.” Some writers use the archaic “amongst” rather than among, “upon” rather than on and “amidst” rather than amid. Prose is not poetry.

Writers often use senseless commas: “Cut taxes and balance budgets, because….” Or: “He loved her, but…” Or the superfluous comma before and: “he ate apples, pears, and oranges.”

Some writers ask rhetorically: “that’s the audacity of hope?” The question mark goes outside the quote. Some writers, having a quote within a quote, put three messy single quote marks together. A space goes between the single quote and double quote.

Someone doesn’t speak “around” 10 a.m. but about. Every approximately is about.

Some shamefully write: “My bad.” Some reporters use this tautology: “$3 billion dollars.” Some writers quote someone then segue into another quote without first identifying the new speaker.

Magazines and online articles “sin” by writing 80-word sentences. They print 25-line paragraphs. Brevity is not just the soul of wit. It is the essence of good writing.

The axiom is true: writing is rewriting.

Above all, Strunk and White urge: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentence. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail but that every word tell.”

Less is more.

Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. Contact him at
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