Book Pick: ‘Do I Make Myself Clear?’ by Harold Evans
Book Pick: ‘Do I Make Myself Clear?’ by Harold Evans
Too often people perceive the work of editors as so much pedantry or needless fussiness.
But editors help authors communicate to their audience, and, as Harold Evans demonstrates in Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters, writing well does matter—and sometimes it even saves lives.
“Words have consequences.”—Harold Evans, author of DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR? Click To Tweet
I did not expect to react emotionally to a book about writing clearly, but I did.
Twice, in fact.
In the chapter “Money and Words,” Evans looks at how the words customer convenience led to deaths because of an auto company’s internal language about faulty ignition switches. I lost two people I love to a car accident, so the subject will always expose raw emotions.
Words do indeed have consequences. Careless language will not always have devastating results, but easily understandable text touches lives in myriad ways, whether helping people decide on political candidates or choosing new home appliances or almost anything else you can imagine.
The second emotional response was to Evans’s observations on “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub,” David Foster Wallace’s 2008 Rolling Stone article about John McCain.
Evans details how Wallace’s account of McCain’s time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam transmitted that experience in a way no other account had. Evans describes Wallace’s language as “prose with the frost off,” and he points out the techniques, such as asking questions, that make the piece so effective.
My emotional response came both from the secondhand transference of the power of Wallace’s writing and from my knowledge of Wallace’s suicide, which is always difficult for me to process.
Why Listen to Evans?
A former editor for the Sunday Times and the Times (London), Evans holds the British Gold Award for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism and was voted by his peers as the all-time greatest British newspaper editor.
Methinks he knows of what he speaks.
Evans divides the book into three main sections: “Tools of the Trade,” “Finishing the Job,” and “Consequences.”
Throughout, Evans breaks down pieces of writing and offers suggestions on how to rework text for clarity. As an editor, it’s thrilling to look over the shoulder of a master and take in the process.
And when I say “breaks down,” I mean it. Evans tears apart writing and shows the reader exactly what he’s doing, why he’s doing it, and how the text sings afterward.
At one point Evans even—gasp!—takes on Jane Austen.
Clear as Mud
Clear writing is always the goal, right?
Not for the “mistakes have been made” crowd.
Evans addresses writing whose intent is to obfuscate, and politicians are far from the only ones who don’t exactly want their meaning to be clear.
For editors, this underscores the importance of working with authors to clarify (ahem) just what kind of editing is desired.
With fiction, an author might feel like an editor has altered their voice or diminished the beauty of their language.
In nonfiction or corporate work, a writer might feel like an editor has produced something that “sounds” less impressive (or exposed the fact that little has been said in the first place).
My experience in corporate work has been that there are those who will do anything to prevent an editor from getting ahold of the work, and I believe this comes from the fear that editors will rewrite just for the sake of rewriting.
This undoubtedly happens. But if editors are committed to helping authors, in any field, and if there’s adequate communication, then both parties should be able to enjoy a harmonious rather than contentious relationship.
Anyone who needs to write for reading level can benefit from Evans’s section on readability. In these pages, he discusses the following tools:
- Flesch Reading Ease index
- Flesch-Kincaid grade level
- Dale-Chall formula
- Gunning fog index
Evans provides an evenhanded assessment of how these tools can help writers while also warning that the tools are blind to meaning and can’t address the thing writers must worry about most: placing “the right words in the right order.”
In one chapter, Evans offers 10 shortcuts for making your writing clear, addressing active and passive voice, adjectives and adverbs, prepositions, and other such trouble spots.
It’s the kind of chapter anyone can read out of context and walk away with a pocketful of valuable advice.
In another chapter, Evans tackles zombies, flesh-eaters, and pleonasms.
Also referred to as nominalizations, smothered verbs, or controverted verbs, zombies manifest themselves in nouns that have devoured verbs: implementation, authorization, etc.
Evans offers a survival guide for dealing with them.
Also plaguing the writing world is language that sucks the life out of text, and Evans provides a six-page list that helps deal with these flesh-eaters. A handy reference, the list is broken into flesh-eaters (“We are in receipt of”) and preferred usages (“We received”).
On pleonasms (redundancies), Evans offers nine pages of examples, with italics indicating words that can be struck out (“complete monopoly”).
He then ends the chapter with seven pages of cliches you want to avoid.
In another chapter, Evans looks at word meanings that have become muddled over time, clarifying usage for words such as dilemma, entomb, and loan/lend.
One of the benefits of books on writing is that they reference other books on writing, so the bibliography serves as a good must-read list. Such is the case here, and readers will also want to check out the blog list for sites to keep tabs on.
When copy editors at long-running institutions are losing jobs in the interest of the bottom line, this seems as good a time as any to remind the world that writing and editing matter.
Evans does this, and he does it clearly.