If you’re a doctor or nurse, you get it too — that involuntary inner shudder when someone in a social situation says, “I have this pain …” Asking for cocktail party diagnoses is not cool. It puts the askee in an awkward position.
But it does go with the job. For journalists and editors, it’s “could you take a quick look at my (manuscript, essay, book draft)?” No such thing as a quick look, so it’s nights and weekends. Plus we do this for a living. Freebies keep writers in the poorhouse, because it’s hard to say no.
Although once in a while, at least, the reading is not unpleasant; even those with a better mastery of English write with difficulty. True “flow” is rare.
Beyond the obvious grammar and spelling, common writing problems are more a matter of logic. Habits such as these tend to detract from a story, lower credibility, confuse, or merely annoy.
Sweeping generalizations: Everyone/anyone, always, never, best, worst, incredible and their ilk. Really? Before using all-encompassing words, ask yourself, is this literally true? Is it accurate, or (absolutely!) necessary to exaggerate? Probably not.
“Everyone should exercise an hour each day.”
Everyone, huh? Newborns and surgical patients? Try “Everyone who is able should …”
Non sequiturs: A non sequitur is a problem in logic, an effect that doesn’t follow the cause. It’s a conclusion that doesn’t necessarily follow what precedes or is missing a link. Convincing communication of any form includes evidence and connections.
“He turned in the paper. He’ll pass.”
Ask any teacher: Turning in an assignment is no guarantee of passing. Was the paper on topic and on time? Did it follow directions? If between the two statements we have more — such as “he’s never made less than an A” — it might work.
“Jack took paper clips from the office. He probably cheats on his taxes.”
Make Jack a book character and we have a credibility problem. From office supplies to IRS forms is too big a leap.
Did I ever take a paper clip home without asking? You bet. Are my taxes honest? Yes ma’am. Jack makes a more convincing tax law-breaker with a history of similar fraud, such as lying on employment applications.
Missing words: This seems to happen more often in recent years, perhaps because we are too accustomed to cramming few characters into text-sized spaces. The trouble is, the meaning can change.
“Six percent of people used to help pain.”
So many holes here. Six percent of which people — everyone on the planet? They used to help pain and now they don’t anymore? They helped pain do what?
“Six percent of people surveyed used medical marijuana to help ease their chronic pain.”
Much clearer. Yes, sometimes preceding sentences fill in gaps, but trust me, not as often as people think they do.
Whatever the purpose, good communication requires self-editing. None of us is perfect; Pulitzer Prize winners goof, too. It helps to keep an imaginary mini-me “listening” for lapses of logic, watching for those indicators that what we had in mind didn’t quite achieve lift-off.
Today’s underused word: Intelligible — capable of being understood.
Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who probably didn’t follow her own advice. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.