Tag Archives: clarity

Want to Write Better? 21 Reminders about the Elements of Good Style.

Whether you write all the time, or only occasionally, you’ve probably thought about how to write better.

One of the best books about writing is The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White. It has been in print for forty years.

I don’t know anything about Strunk, but I’m a huge fan of the writing of E. B. White.  I love his children’s books of course — masterpieces like Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan — and I also love his brilliant essays, like Here Is New York, and the Letters of E. B. White.

So I pay close attention to whatever he says about style.

The reminders from The Elements of Style include:

 

  1. Place yourself in the background. Zoikes, so I don’t adhere to this element. Not an auspicious start.
  2. Write in a way that comes naturally. Phew, I do better with this one.
  3. Work from a suitable design. I couldn’t agree more. Structure is the most important element. Whenever I write a book, a blog post, a podcast episode, the first issue is the structure.
  4. Write with nouns and verbs. It sounds so easy, right? But as we all know from reading, many people don’t grasp this principle.
  5. Revise and rewrite. Re-writing is my favorite kind of writing.
  6. Do not overwrite.
  7. Don’t overstate. This reminder is literally a life-saver.
  8. Avoid the use of qualifiers. Sometime, it seems, they’re a little unnecessary.
  9. Do not affect a breezy manner.
  10. Use orthodox spelling. I’m still standing against “donut.”
  11. Do not explain too much. My editors and I often disagree about this one.  They want me to explain at more length, and I think that what I’ve said is perfectly clear and doesn’t need further explanation. Nice to know I have Strunk & White on my side.
  12. Do not construct awkward adverbs.
  13. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.  Wolf Hall, anyone?
  14. Avoid fancy words. This is tough for me. How I love fancy words. But they’re right, better to use the simple, direct words. I learned this from studying Winston Churchill’s speeches.
  15. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.  Sidenote: I love Flannery O’Connor’s use of dialect.
  16. Be clear.
  17. Do not inject opinion. I think that sometimes opinion is acceptable.
  18. Use figures of speech sparingly. Yes! It’s a sign of cliche!
  19. Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.
  20. Avoid foreign languages.
  21. Prefer the standard to the offbeat.

Which elements do you think are most important? I would say #16, #3, #4.

 

If you want to read more books about writing, here are My 5 favorite books about writing.  What books have I overlooked?

Video: Why Having Clarity of Values and Clarity of Action Helps Us Keep Our Habits.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation. I posted videos for the other twenty strategies a while back, but somehow, I never posted about the Strategy of Clarity! A very important strategy. So, voila.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative.

My book, Better Than Before (can’t resist adding, bestseller) describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits.

I spend a lot of time thinking about questions such as, “How do we change?” “Why is it so hard to make ourselves do things that we want to do?” ( for instance, why is it so hard to make myself go to bed?) and “How can we stick to our resolutions?“

I realize now that a big challenge is clarity. Often, if there’s something that I want to do, but somehow can’t get myself to do, it’s because I don’t have clarity. This lack of clarity often arises from a feeling of ambivalence–I want to do something, but I don’t want to do it; or I want one thing, but I also want something else that conflicts with it.

 

Lack of clarity, and the paralysis that ensues, seems to be common. Here’s a list of aims in conflict that I’ve heard. Do any ring a bell for you?

  • I want to eat healthfully. It’s wrong to waste any food.

    I want to give 110% to work. I want to give 110% to my family.

    I want to work on my novel. I want to exercise.

    I want to spend less time in the car. I want my children to participate in many after-school activities.

    Making money is not important. Making money is important.

    I want to be very accessible to other people. I want time alone to think and work.

    I want to be a polite guest. I want to avoid sugar.

    I want leisure time when I come home from work. I want to live in a house that’s clean and well-run.

 

Have you experienced this — a paralysis that comes from conflicting values?

I have to admit, I’d been researching and thinking about habits for a long time before I grasped the significance of the Strategy of Clarity. It’s very, very important.

Before & After: “Odd Days, I Do Everything I Can for Mom. Even Days, for Me.”

I’m writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we make and break habits– an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here.

To hear when Better Than Before goes on sale, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from Penelope Schmitt, who, as she notes, lives with her 90-year-old mother.

Bureaucratic, medical, and business tasks take up more and more time for those who are older. Doctor appointments abound, and business management goes on and on. I hate these tasks, and have been finding that doing things for TWO people that I hated doing even for one person, and that myself, was pretty burdensome. Last week, I hit on this blindingly simple idea:

 

ODD days: I do everything I can to complete business that needs to be done for Mom, shopping or doctor appointments or whatever. I don’t think I’m even going to care if I sound like a nutcase asking for appointments on calendar days with odd dates. ODD days are her days, and I have a special commitment to go the extra mile for her on those days–to make her life pleasant, as well as to take care of her business. 

 

EVEN days: I do everything I can to complete business that needs to be done for ME. I do something special that is fun for me alone (like a manicure, or a walk at the mall). I do not have to do one single non-emergency bureaucratic task for anyone else but me. 

 

In one week, this has resulted in me having the fortitude to address dreaded tasks for her, because after all, tomorrow is MY day. And it has also resulted in me getting my own business done, because tomorrow I won’t be able to. I feel more free to enjoy the things that I am doing to make my own life feel better, and I feel that the ‘indefinite sentence’ of taking care of her business has been lightened by 50% because I do not have to address it (or choose to ignore it) every day. It is only my job every OTHER day. 

 

What a revelation. 

There are a few things that I think are worth noting about this Odd/Even approach.

The Strategy of Treats: it’s a Secret of Adulthood for Habits: When we give more to ourselves, we can ask more of ourselves. By specifically acknowledging that her needs were just as important as her mother’s, and finding time do the things she wanted to do, Penelope was able to be happier, and also more helpful to her mother.

The Strategy of Scheduling: for most of us, there’s a magic to seeing something on the schedule; if it’s on the schedule, it happens. So, especially for people who have trouble saying “no,” the Strategy of Scheduling can be very helpful–they can schedule time for themselves. Scheduling allows us to make time for everything that we value, by putting it on the calendar.

The Strategy of Clarity: when we know exactly what we’re asking of ourselves, and exactly what we want, it’s easier to keep a habit. This Odd/Even approach is very clear. It makes decision-making and planning easy. It eliminates a lot of hesitation and uncertainty. Making decisions is very draining, and one of the chief benefits of habits, generally, is that they eliminate decisions.

This idea is so simple, and so appealing. Have you ever tried anything along these lines?

 

Are You Ever Paralyzed Because Two of Your Values Are in Conflict?

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

I spend a lot of time thinking about questions such as, “How do we change?” “Why is it so hard to make ourselves do things that we want to do?” ( for instance, why is it so hard to make myself go to bed?) and “How can we stick to our resolutions?

I realize now that a big challenge is clarity. Often, if there’s something that I want to do, but somehow can’t get myself to do, it’s because I don’t have clarity. This lack of clarity often arises from a feeling of ambivalence–I want to do something, but I don’t want to do it; or I want one thing, but I also want something else that conflicts with it.

Here’s a conflict: It’s nice when my older daughter is around while she does her homework; on the other hand, it’s good for her to be in her room without the distractions of family noise. So do I nudge her to go to her room, or do I let her stay in the kitchen? I can never decide.

These days, when I’m trying to get myself to pursue some course of action, I work hard to make sure I know exactly what I expect from myself, and why, and what value I’m choosing to serve.

I don’t think I’m the only one who struggles with this problem. Lack of clarity, and the paralysis that ensues, seems to be common. Here’s a list of aims in conflict that I’ve heard. Do any ring a bell for you?

I want to eat healthfully. It’s wrong to waste any food.

I want to give 110% to work. I want to give 110% to my family.

I want to work on my novel. I want to exercise.

I want to get more sleep. I want some time each day to talk to my sweetheart, watch TV, and goof around.

I want to spend less time in the car. I want my children to participate in many after-school activities.

Making money is not important. Making money is important.

I want to be very accessible to other people. I want time alone to think and work.

I want to be a polite guest. I want to avoid sugar.

I want to be frugal. I want to join a gym.

I want leisure time when I come home from work. I want to live in a house that’s clean and well-run.

I want to meet new people and see my friends. I want more solitude.

I want to stop nagging you. I want you to help me.

Have you experienced this–a paralysis that comes from conflicting values?