Good writing is like a windowpane.
“A Champion Of Plain English” — for a writer, a headline like this is irresistible!
Needless to say, I dived into The New York Times story below it head first. No matter that it was in a section called Sunday Money, I was in. The “champion” turned out to be Alfred E. Kahn, a renowned economist.
Apparently Alfred was a writer at heart. “While he respected numbers,” the article noted, “he loved words and hated to see them misused.” So much so, that he wrote a legendary memo on the topic shortly after he became the chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board in which he implored the lawyers and economists on his staff to write more clearly. Here are a few tips we can all benefit from:
“If you can’t explain what you’re doing in plain English, you’re probably doing something wrong.”
“The passive voice is widely overused in government writing. Typically, its
purpose is to conceal information.”
“The active voice is far more forthright, direct, and humane.”
Alfred apparently towered above his fellow economists in his commitment to transparent language. As the article noted, his “devotion to clear language was not just a matter of style. He was also one of the profession’s clearest thinkers….”
Love that connection between clear writing and clear thinking, don’t you?
E.B. White would have liked Alfred. Here’s a tip from E.B’s reminder #16:
“Be Clear” in The Elements of Style: “Even to a writer who is being intentionally obscure or wild of tongue we can say, “Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!” Great advice for us all. Thanks E.B. and Alfred!