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Wednesday, 25 November 2009

What two great writers had in common with grandpa Bird

How many modern writers have given as much pleasure as P. G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler?

Chandler was perhaps the best crime novelist ever; and he had a huge influence, inspiring films like Chinatown and many others. Wodehouse began as a writer of musicals, which may be why his stuff works so well on TV.

A while ago I learned to my childish pleasure that both went to Dulwich College at the same time as my grandfather. And this summer I was thrilled to bits when one of my relatives gave me this picture. In the middle holding the cup is P .G. Wodehouse (though with his name misspelt) and second on the top right is Grandpa.

Their Headmaster, A. H. Gilkes - clearly a great teacher – must have influenced the boys considerably. He gave no quarter to "word sophistry or posing" according to Chandler's biographer Tom Hiney. Maybe that is why both these great writers have such a satisfyingly simple style.

Conversely you will notice that word sophistry and posing are de rigeur for the marketing drones who fill meetings and documents with turgid oceans of polysyllabic tripe. Maybe they help in getting ahead and extracting money from weak minds, impressed by what they don’t understand. Look through almost any marketing document and you find that for wordy drivel it is in the same class as any politician's speeches. This is a shame, as many who do not have weak minds care a lot about clear writing.

In a survey some years ago, US business leaders were asked what change they would most like to see. They didn't talk about accounting or strategy. Mostly they pleaded: "can't someone teach people to write better?"

Since neary all business writing is aimed, one way or another, at clarifying or persuading someone of something, this is important. Good writing is not easy - I've been struggling at it for decades - but it is simple.

Here are seven pointers.

  1. Never use a word more than you need.
  2. Don’t use a long word if a short one will do.
  3. Don’t use jargon.
  4. Don’t use clichés.
  5. Edit at least five times.
  6. Read out loud for sense.
  7. Study Chandler and Wodehouse to see how it’s done.

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