When writers go bad

Ensuring what you mean is what you write.

Sometimes when writing, we may begin a sentence without knowing how it will end. If you’re not careful, it could come out with the entirely wrong meaning. Self-editing prior to handing in work can help avoid some serious writing disasters.

“When something is awful, why not say so?” asks Richard Palmer, author of Write In Style: A Guide to Good English(London: Spon Press, 1993, 3).  He says so in the chapter on Disasters, – using the following passages to explain what to do to avoid such mistakes:

1.) In this set of instructions the writer gets into a hilarious mess through not thinking clearly or ‘hearing’ the words.

“When feeding the baby with a bottle, it must be held at a steep angle with the bottom tilted up and the neck held firmly down, otherwise an air-bubble will form in the neck. Do not allow the baby to drink all the feed at once, but give it a rest sometimes so that it can get the wind up. Finally, when the baby has finished the bottle, place it under the tap straight away, or allow it to soak in a mild solution of Milton, to prevent infection. If the baby does not thrive on fresh milk it should be powdered or boiled.”

A formal analysis of why this goes wrong would show that the loose use of pronouns sets up a farcical ambiguity. But a simpler explanation is that the writer is lazy. There has been no attempt to imagine how the words will ‘sound’, how they will affect the reader. Given that the passage is instructional, presumably intended to assist an inexperienced parent, that is a severe fault.

2.) The next extract, taken from an A-level English examination script, suffers from inadequate thought too, though in a different way.

“Fielding, having once been a play write [sic] *, moved into novels. In this novel he was not merely trying to parody Pamela, by Richardson, but his was make [sic] some clear social comments. To do this he had to use caricatures and situations, and this obviously could lead to a certain amount of disconnection of events.”

Even if we ignore the spelling mistake and the brief dive into illiteracy in the third line, this is an unholy mess. The candidate is not stupid, and underneath the drivel there is a sense of some useful points trying to emerge. But they are all jumbled together, linked by a ‘logic’ presumed to be adequate but which in fact is non-existent.

The writer needed to be aware of a very valuable principle. Never begin a sentence until you are sure of what you want to say in it and of how it will end.

If obeying that principle means that you write shorter sentences for a while, never mind. Better that than to land yourself in the kind of quagmire we’ve just waded through.

Click here for additional examples of writing gone wrong and what you can do to avert them.

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