One summer, nearly a lifetime ago, a leaflet came through the door of every household in Britain. It brought news of something quietly revolutionary:
Your new National Health Service begins on 5th July.
What is it? How do you get it?
It will provide you with all medical, dental and nursing care. Everyone — rich or poor, man, woman or child — can use it or any part of it. There are no charges, except for a few special items. There are no insurance qualifications. But it is not a ‘charity’. You are all paying for it, mainly as tax payers, and it will relieve your money worries in time of illness.
If medals were handed out for services to clarity, the anonymous authors of these words would have got one. They kept it magnificently simple.
First, they announced the launch of an institution, in the plainest language, stating its name and giving its start date, and choosing “begin” rather than its pompous brother “commence”, which often proves irresistible to officials. Then they asked two questions: “What is it? How do you get it?” All the best questions are short, because then they are big and open, leaving room for many different answers. And this even applies, as here, with a question you ask yourself.
So far we’ve had three sentences but very few words, none of them long. This is plain speaking, which inspires trust: it tells us that the authors have nothing to hide.
If medals were handed out for services to clarity, the anonymous authors of the NHS leaflet would have got one.
The sentences that follow, giving the answers, are almost as short as the questions. Every clause is a main clause, entire and of itself. The first sentence sums up what the NHS offers: “It will provide you with all medical, dental and nursing care.” The second spells out who it’s for: “Everyone — rich or poor, man, woman or child — can use it or any part of it.”
The third sentence says that nearly all of this new service will be free; the fourth assures you that you don’t need insurance. The fifth sentence (“But it is not a ‘charity’”) and the first half of the sixth (“You are all paying for it”) show how the service is funded, and the paragraph finishes with the emotional impact that is the point of the whole exercise — peace of mind. “It will relieve your money worries in time of illness.”
All this is done calmly, crisply, with no fuss or grandstanding. Which is not to say that it’s flawless. A picky editor might have trimmed a couple of words. “Qualifications” is jarring, a word of five syllables in a paragraph where everything else has three at most: that sentence would have been plainer and simpler as “You don’t need insurance”.
And there’s another bum note in the quote marks around “charity”. The point being made here is straightforwardly true — the NHS is not a charity — so there’s no need to complicate things with quotes.
But this is still a paragraph of immense power. It contains so few words, yet it conveys all the main points about a new institution. It is direct, helpful and down-to-earth. Written in 1948, it is way ahead of its time.
This is plain speaking, which inspires trust: it tells us that the authors have nothing to hide.
Clarity is, among other things, a courtesy. It means using words the reader will understand, which means using words you understand yourself. Being clear is far more important than being clever. If you can be both at once, all the better; but it’s not worth going out of your way to sound clever, because it hardly ever works. The TV critic Nancy Banks-Smith once said: “We cannot put pen to paper without revealing something of ourselves.”
One reason the NHS leaflet worked was that it had a strong sense of its reader. It wasn’t aimed at the educated; it could be understood by anyone who was able to read, and by many people who weren’t, because the short sentences made it easy to read aloud to the illiterate, or to children — a bigger consideration then than it is now, but still worth bearing in mind.
The authors didn’t let their phrasing get in the way of their meaning. Consciously or not, they complied with a famous maxim coined two years earlier, in 1946, by George Orwell: “Good prose is like a windowpane.”
Brevity, Polonius says in Hamlet, is the soul of wit. It’s an all-time great line, nonchalantly practising what it preaches, while also poking fun at Polonius for being long-winded. You could even go a step further and argue that brevity is the soul of writing. The words you write are going to bite into your reader’s time, so it’s good manners not to be greedy.
Every so often, someone somewhere launches a short-story competition in which the story has to be told in six words. The most famous example is attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.” Whoever it’s by, it could hardly be better. It has the element of surprise, and uses it — as Flaubert said about the aspirations of writers in general — to move the stars to pity.
Twitter, in its early years, was sometimes dismissed as being dumbed down because of its 140-character limit. Yet the baby-shoes story would have fitted into a tweet, no trouble. Twitter, while not always good for social harmony, does us a favour by forcing us to do something we should be doing anyway as we write: to distil our thoughts. Sometimes this is just a matter of finding the right word, and not using four or five of them where one will do.
The words you write are going to bite into your reader’s time, so it’s good manners not to be greedy.
If you’re tempted to write “despite the fact that”, bear in mind that we already have a word for that: “although”. “Increase the size of”: try “increase” on its own, or one of its sisters — “enlarge” or “expand”. “At this moment in time”: how about “now”? On a British Airways transatlantic flight in 2018 the bread roll came with something called Fresh Buttery Taste Spread. In your kitchen, let there be butter.
Another good rule is don’t mention yourself unless you have to. If you’ve written “I think”, or “I would say that”, or “I have come to the conclusion that”, try the same sentence without it. At a stroke, it will be not just more concise, but more confident.
On a British Airways flight the bread roll came with something called Fresh Buttery Taste Spread. In your kitchen, let there be butter.
On the whole, it’s better just to say things than to say things about the things you are saying. Even a phrase such as “Put simply” can be irritating: putting things simply is great, as we’ve seen, but commenting on it may have the reader groaning and muttering “get on with it”. Phrases such as “It would be no exaggeration to say that …” contain more than their share of hot air. As Oscar Wilde almost said, it’s the importance of being not too earnest.
At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, writing is an activity. George Mackay Brown, an author of great character who lived on Orkney off the north coast of Scotland, used to say that a writer was like any other worker, a farmer or a carpenter or a plumber. It may not look this way to anyone wandering past as you sit there and stare at your screen, but you are making something. You need to bring plenty of energy to the task — and to concentrate.
If you’re switched on, your sentences are more likely to be the third thing they most need to be, after clear and concise: vivid.
Bad writing lands dead on the page, whereas good writing is alive. And what gives it life, more often than not, is that it is visual. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but those thousand words can contain a multitude of pictures. There’s no literary mantra more vital than “show and tell”, and it’s no accident that “show” comes first. Good writers give examples, make things concrete, engage our eyes and ears, take something mundane or middling and make it memorable.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but those thousand words can contain a multitude of pictures.
Many of us have observed at some time or other that things, especially bad things, seem to happen in clusters, but only Shakespeare, writing Hamlet in about 1600, put it like this: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies. But in battalions.”
And only Neil Gaiman, in his novel Neverwhere (1996), put it like this: “Richard had noticed that events were cowards: they didn’t occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once.” The observation may be an obvious one, but Shakespeare and Gaiman transform it by adding vividness. Like a friend visiting a family and turning up with a present for the children, they bring something eye-catching: the spies and the cowards.
Sometimes you need to do the telling before the showing, to set up a good line. In Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, a wonderful play but one that is almost as male as its name suggests, the nearest thing to a female lead is Mrs Lintott, the teacher who is the voice of reason, practicality, scepticism and feminism. “History,” she proclaims, “is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men.” Which, by Bennett’s high standards, is rather a dry sentence, all abstract nouns and no pictures. But we soon discover that it’s only the set-up. “What is history?” Mrs Lintott goes on. “History is women following behind with the bucket.”
Read Like a Writer
‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,’ said Jojen. ‘The man who never reads lives only one.’
—George RR Martin, A Dance with Dragons (2011)
Of all the countless lines he has written, that is Martin’s favourite. It is the story of his own life. “When I was a kid,” he told an audience at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2014, “my world was five streets long.” He lived in a dockside town in New Jersey, where his father worked as a longshoreman. “I never got away, except in books. I lived a thousand lives through books.”
Reading doesn’t just expand your world: it broadens your mind and sharpens your pencil. By writing, you will learn things the hard way, which is often the best way; but by reading, you can do it the easy way too. You can learn from other people’s mistakes, and from their successes, and from everything in between.
You will see how simple a good line can be. “The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun (1951). “It isn’t even past.”
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.... The man who never reads lives only one.”
Writers read the ways other people do, for pleasure or escape, to acquire knowledge or to make sense of the human predicament. “The best moments in reading,” Alan Bennett says in The History Boys, “are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
That pleasure is waiting for us whether we write or not. But writers also read in another way, paying extra attention. A sportsman has to watch the ball, a driver has to watch the road, and a writer has to watch each word.
Writers think about the choices the author makes. They think about tone of voice; they may even read a writer for tone alone. Nobody in the 21st century needs to know anything about what loveable buffoons, omniscient valets and domineering aunts might have got up to in 1920s England, but PG Wodehouse is still read and revered by the writers’ union, because they can open a book of his at random and find a sentence like this, from Very Good, Jeeves (1930): “In one second, without any previous training or upbringing, he had become the wettest man in Worcestershire.”
Add Some Whiskey, Hips, and Wriggle
The book that did most to inspire this one is Put It in Writing (1984) by John Whale, a guide so crisp and wise that every intern I ever hired ended up reading it. Early on, Whale champions this passage from Pax Britannica (1968) by James Morris (now Jan Morris), showing what Sundays were like in a border town in Canada in the 1890s:
The bars, theatres and dance halls closed at a minute before midnight every Saturday night, and not a whisky was sold again, not a hip was wriggled, not a bet was placed, until two in the morning on Monday. The Sunday sounds of Dawson City were psalms and snores. No kind of work was allowed. Men were arrested for fishing on a Sunday, or for sawing wood. The only hope of living it up, between Saturday night and Monday morning, was to take a boat downriver and slip across the line into the States — out of reach of the Pax Britannica and its stern schoolmarm values.
A less sparky writer might have said something like this. “Sundays in Dawson City were sacrosanct, reserved for going to church or going to sleep. The residents were not allowed to dance, gamble, buy alcohol, go fishing or even do any work, unless they crossed the border into the United States, out of reach of the British Empire and its Victorian values.”
That would have summed up the situation solidly enough and saved 60 words or so, but it would have deprived us of the whisky, the hip, the wriggle, the bet, the psalms, the snores, the fishing, the sawing and the boat, not to mention the bars, the theatres, the dance halls and the precise timings. It would have drained the colour from the passage, and much of the life: there would have been hardly anything to see or hear or smell or feel — let alone remember.
Morris’s paragraph isn’t difficult or demanding. The pace is quick, the words are short, the tone is informal, and yet there’s some shape. All those sights and sounds are there to work up to the main point, which uses the title of the book and punches it home with one well-chosen word — “schoolmarm”. It’s like watching a string of passes, wondering where they’re going, and then seeing the ball in the back of the net. To write well, Whale says “you should think in pictures, write as you speak, and keep your reader happy”. This passage does all of that.