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Plain Speaking and Writing

When I was growing up in rural East Tennessee, my parents subscribed to a number of publications. Because my father was partner with my grandfather in a dairy farm, many of those publications were newspapers and magazines devoted to agriculture. I especially remember eagerly paging through Progressive Farmer, Southern Farmer, and The Tennessee Farmer. Although I understood little about the technical agricultural information the articles discussed, I enjoyed looking at the pictures of cattle and farm equipment, especially the tractors.

My parents also subscribed to the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Over the years, as I matured, I progressed from reading the funnies (as we kids called the comics section) to reading some of the substantive content. I especially came to enjoy the writing of such columnists as Bert Vincent (Strolling), Don Whitehead (I think it was called Don Whitehead Reports, but I vividly recall reading his book The FBI Story), and Vic Weals, who wrote about the history of East Tennessee and the Smokies, including the book Last Train to Elkmont.


The Tennessee Farm Bureau, to which my parents and grandparents belonged, also published a newspaper that they, as insurance policyholders, received. I think it might have been Tennessee Home and Farm. (Or maybe not.) When I became an adult, I continued the tradition and became a member of Farm Bureau even though I wasn't a farmer. But I got my insurance through them, and I received and read their publications.

In both childhood and adulthood, I always tried especially to read the writings of two particular columnists in those publications. One was Pettus Read, whose column was titled Read All About It. (I enjoyed his writing so much that after we moved to South Carolina and no longer received that publication, I bought his book Read All About It: A Rural Psychology Primer.)


The other columnist was Straight Talk by Tom Anderson. Anderson made a career of editing and publishing a number of farm magazines, starting with The Arkansas Farmer in the late 1940s and eventually about 15 other such publications over his lifetime. One of those was The Tennessee Farmer, which my family received. His column was published not only in his magazines but also in more than 375 newspapers across the country. He also had a weekly radio program by the same title.

I later visited a one-room schoolhouse somewhere in East Tennessee where an elderly gentleman, Frank Fuis, who had attended such a school as a youth, presented what he remembered about receiving an education in such a setting. Talking to him afterward, I learned that during World War II he not only had helped design the Oak Ridge plants used in the Manhattan Project but also had been a columnist and had written several books. I went home and ordered two of them: Too Wet to Plow and The Second Furrow.


Each of those writers was unique in his content and focus, but one thing they all had in common attracted me: their simplicity of style. The titles of many of their columns seemed to fit their styles: Strolling, Straight Talk. Their writing was clear, conversational, direct, and pointed. One couldn't read one of their columns and afterwards not know what they had said. They used no doubletalk, no obfuscation. So there was no misunderstanding. Agree with what they wrote or not, you always knew what they meant.

That, I think, is the key to good writing. Mark Twain once said as much in a letter he wrote to a 12-year-old boy: "[U]se plain, simple language, short words, and brief sentences. That is the way to write. . . . [D]on't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in."


"Writing today," Robert Hartwell Fiske said in The Dictionary of Concise Writing, "often has too much fat, too little muscle. . . ."


Our goal as writers should be, above all, clarity of meaning. In striving for that, we should "make every word count." That means that the words we do use should convey the precise meaning we intend. And that requires that we constantly seek to expand our vocabulary so that we have in our verbal toolbox the exact tools for the job we're undertaking with our writing.


Some people use a thesaurus to achieve that result, and that is a fine toolbox for the tools we might need. But too many people use a thesaurus like a college freshman trying to impress the teacher with his use of big words and convoluted reasoning. Rather, we should use the thesaurus to identify the best words, the exact words, for our intended meaning and purpose. We shouldn't use it merely to impress or obfuscate.


I once had a professor who simultaneously gave me a backhanded compliment and a much-needed lesson as she returned a paper we students had written for her class. After she had commented on the all-too-prevalent boringly simplistic writing of some younger students, she then said, "But don't be Pauline like Mr. Peterson." She was referring to my tendency to overuse long, complex sentences similar to those used in the epistles of the apostle Paul. I got her point: breaking longer sentences down into several shorter, simpler sentences might sometimes work better. Pauline sentences still characterize my writing, I suspect. But at least I'm now aware of the problem and am working on it. The key, I also suspect, is sentence variety.


But as I pondered her comment and sought to apply the intended lesson, I also realized what that apostle had said about his own writing and preaching. He wrote, "Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech" (2 Cor. 3:12, KJV). Then, in 1 Corinthians 2:4 and Colossians 2:4, he said that he had not used "enticing words," as had some people who sought to "beguile" (i.e., deceive) the readers. Politicians and con artists habitually and intentionally do that; good writers intentionally don't.


What about your own writing? Do you strive for unmistakable clarity? We all should. As Matthew Arnold advised, our writing should be "eminently plain and direct" (On Translating Homer). That's how we can achieve our writing purpose, ensuring that our meaning is fully understood. And then some readers might even enjoy reading what we've written!

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