Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Seven Deadly Sins in Writing

Other bloggers have called attention to Angela Erisman's list of reading material which can help improve your Writing in Biblical Studies. I'd recommend Constance Hale's Sin and Syntax in particular, for any writing professional who has trouble knowing when to break the rules and when not to.

At one point Hale warns against seven deadly sins in writing (pp 18-29). Let's look at them:
1. Sloth. "Grabbing the closest shopworn words without so much as a glimmer of guilt, or hastily creating inelegant nouns out of other nouns, or even verbs." (p 18) And even worse -- as I complained about in The Dumbing Down of English Nouns -- creating verbs out of nouns. Then there are cliches, which should always be avoided (I would say "avoided like the plague", but that's a cliche, right?). I agree with Hale that sloth is the most common and insidious sin among writers.

2. Gluttony. "The gourmandish urge to use five words where one would do." (p 20) This often leads to the use of roundabout and redundant prepositional phrases instead of straight nouns and verbs. I had a problem with this in college, and learned slowly and painfully that less is more, more often than not. A good mantra to recite when sitting at the keyboard.

3. Fog. "Using vague and woolly words rather than concrete ones. A writer who hasn't stopped to think about what he or she is trying to say piles up abstract nouns like phenomenon, element, individual, objective." (pp 20-21) It's easy to fall into this trap when having a brain cramp, but the remedy is simple: go back, revise, and defog your writing.

4. Pretense. "Resorting to pompous, ponderous, or just imponderable nouns." (p 22) The worst sinners are academics so preoccupied with their diction that they lose sight of their goal: communicating with an audience (p 23). Insecurity and arrogance lie behind pretentious words like utilize, praxis, pericope, normalcy and colloquy. Drop them in favor of use, practice, passage, normality and conversation -- except in the very rare contexts warranting the others. (I've complained about this before, following Chris Heard.)

5. Gobbledygook. An inability to keep things simple. Examples: capitalized cost reductions instead of down payments; a specialist in arms control and security issues instead of a weapons wonk. As with sin #2 (gluttony), less is more.

6. Jargon. Technical lingo. Revelling in the aforesaids, hereofs, hereinbelows, etc. Lawyers and doctors excel in jargon.

7. Euphemism. Describing offensive behavior with inoffensive terms, or sensitive issues with politically-correct language. So in place of firing managers use downsizing, rightsizing, or reshaping. When referring to the bombardment of defenseless villages, the governement speaks of pacification. Black people are Afro-Americans; retarded people are mentally challenged. "Euphemisms are for wimps, invented in an attempt to avoid offending others or to pussyfoot around socially prickly subjects. They conceal reality rather than reveal it -- which is, after all, what a writer should be doing." (pp 26-28)
Many would object to these complaints (especially #'s 1, 4, 6, and 7) with the retort that language evolves, and we shouldn't be linguistic fundamentalists. "To dialogue" may be a slothful way of creating a new word, but for better or worse, the dumbing down of our English nouns has become more acceptable. Academics may sound pretentious, but their vocabulary evolves according to the canons of their professions. But the counter-retort, Hale's point, is that language doesn't always evolve for the better. Following conventions and trends doesn't put you on the road to strong and aesthetic prose anymore than slavishly following the rules does. The trick is knowing when to follow the crowd and not to. For myself, I'll never warm to "dialogue" as a verb, no matter how many dictionaries acknowledge it.

Who are the good writers of biblical scholarship? There are many, but the following come straight to mind: Donald Akenson, John Meier, Mark Goodacre, and Philip Esler. All have robust and engaging prose, and steer clear of the seven deadly sins. John Dominic Crossan is another story. Some view him as a gifted writer, but he's one of the most pretentious (sin #4) I've ever read. He revels in words like "normalcy", and loves pompous aphorisms, trying to achieve Schweitzerian heights but failing miserably. (Only a true genius like Schweitzer can write like Schweitzer.) Then there is Ed Sanders, whose landmark ideas have been marred by italic overkill and minor gluttony (sin #2). Mark Nanos has wonderful and important ideas, but he's where I was in my undergrad years (heavy gluttony, sin #2). I think gluttony results from a subconscious fear that readers will lose your point unless you spell things out every step of the way, in every sentence, with hyper-qualifying phrases and clauses.

More on Hale's Sin and Syntax later. This blog has been stalling lately (for various reasons), but I hope to get back on track soon.

UPDATE: Mark Goodacre suggests adding another deadly sin:
8. Polemic. The use of unnecessarily hostile language including overstatement, ridicule, insult and hyperbole. As a general rule, if you are writing in harsh criticism of another scholar, imagine yourself saying it out loud at a conference with the person present in the room, and ask yourself if you are comfortable with your tone.
I should note that this complements sin #7 rather than opposes it. Hale concedes that civility and tact are important and should be cultivated -- just not with euphemisms (p 26).

UPDATE (II): April DeConick broadens the discussion by listing her top four frustrations about academic writing.

UPDATE (III): Michael Pahl defends deadly sin #4, the use of pretentious words. He writes: "There is a valid reason for the existence of many, if not most, big words: the small words just don't cut it in some situations." I agree, and so would Hale. The key phrase is some situations, and let's make that very few situations. I think pretentious words are analogous to the passive voice. The passive voice exists for a good reason too. The trick is holding back until you really need that voice -- meaning, in a case where it does the job better, and sounds better, than the active; such cases are rare. Ditto for the "big" words. They sound great when used sparingly and in contexts which absolutely demand them. Otherwise they lose their luster and sound odious.


Blogger Unknown said...

Excellent, Loren. Thanks for posting it.

If there's a corollary, I'd recommend adding "pride". One of the most helpful things for my writing has been regular review by folks who won't hold back. I find I'm blind to things because I'm so caught up in the writing itself. So on larger projects I tend to write like crazy, then edit, then let it sit. After a few weeks, I give it to some folks I know and trust. They rip it to shreds. Because some time has passed since writing, I'm less invested in it -- and more open to criticism.

I may not incorporate everything my friends recommend, but it does wonders. People you know and respect should read your drafts early and often. Don't write in a vacuum.

Rick Brannan

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Good point, Rick. I used to be a bit proud and cagey with my writing. Now I thrive on being railroaded by friends and acquaintances. :)

Blogger Judy Redman said...

While I agree with much of what you've said, I don't agree with your stance on euphemism. "Firing" may at times be more accurate than "downsizing", but sometimes downsizing involves offering early retirement and redundancy payments rather than firing people. In my experience Afro-Americans are actually dark brown, not black. Often "politically correct" language is more accurate than that which it replaces and people who use the non-PC options could well be accused of sin #1 - sloth! :-)

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

In my experience Afro-Americans are actually dark brown, not black. Often "politically correct" language is more accurate than that which it replaces

Ah, but accuracy isn't always what we want. It can lead to literal-mindedness -- another deadly sin in my book. White people are really pink, but that would sound silly. I don't see anything wrong with the term "black": it sounds simple and strong, while "Afro-American" sounds anal and patronizing.

Blogger ximenaperez said...

thanks good recomendations! i agree... and also I am a sinner!

Blogger Peter Kirby said...

Thank you for this...much to keep in mind! I came to your post by way of S.C. Carlson's link.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always enjoy your Blog. As a PhD candidate trying to write something intelligent about Paul and the Romans I always find it useful to return to your Blog and the links to find out what is out there now. I loved the seven deadly sins, however when I sit in front of my blank screen trying to write something, anything, I wish I could suffer from Gluttony, and so does my supervisor I suspect.


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