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UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of ten of America's presidencies and who has edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. We get over 5 million article visits a year. See prorev.com for full contents of our site

January 8, 2010

ON WRITING

From a talk to the incoming international students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, August 11, 2009

William Zinsser, American Scholar - I'm sure all of you, newly arrived in America, have already been driven crazy trying to figure out the instructions for ordering a cell phone or connecting your computer, or applying for a bank loan or a health insurance policy, and you assume that those of us who were born here can understand this stuff. I assure you that we don't understand it either. I often receive some totally unintelligible letter from the telephone company or the cable company or the bank. I try to piece it out like a hieroglyphic, and I ask my wife, "Can you make any sense of this?" She says, "I have no idea what it means."

Those long Latin usages have so infected everyday language in America that you might well think, "If that's how people write who are running the country, that's how I'm supposed to write." It's not. Let me read you three typical letters I recently received in the mail. . .

The first one is from the president of a private club in New York. It says, "Dear member: The board of governors has spent the past year considering proactive efforts that will continue to professionalize the club and to introduce efficiencies that we will be implementing throughout 2009." That means they're going to try to make the club run better. . .

Here's a letter to alumni from the head of the New England boarding school I attended when I was a boy. "As I walk around the Academy," she writes, "and see so many gifted students interacting with accomplished, dedicated adults" [that means boys and girls talking to teachers] and consider the opportunities for learning that such interpersonal exchanges will yield." . . . Her letter is meant to assure us alumni that the school is in good hands. I'm not assured. One thing I know is that she shouldn't be allowed near the English department, and I'm not sure she should even be running the school. Remember: how you write is how you define yourself to people who meet you only through your writing. If your writing is pretentious, that's how you'll be perceived. The reader has no choice.

Here's one more-a letter from the man who used to be my broker; now he's my investment counsel. He says, "As we previously communicated, we completed a systems conversion in late September. Data conversions involve extra processing and reconciliation steps [translation: it took longer than we thought it would to make our office operate better]. We apologize if you were inconvenienced as we completed the verification process [we hope we've got it right now]. "Further enhancements will be introduced in the next calendar quarter" [we're still working on it]. Notice those horrible long Latin words: communicated, conversion, reconciliation, enhancements, verification. There's not a living person in any one of them.

I bring this up today because most of you will soon be assigned to a beat in one of New York's neighborhoods. Our city has been greatly enriched in recent years by immigrants from every corner of the world, but their arrival has also brought a multitude of complex urban problems. You'll be interviewing the men and women who are trying to solve those problems-school principals, social workers, health-care workers, hospital officials, criminal justice officials, union officials, church officials, police officers, judges, clerks in city and state agencies-and when you ask them a question, they will answer you in nouns: Latin noun clusters that are the working vocabulary of their field. They'll talk about "facilitation intervention" and "affordable housing" and "minimum-density zoning," and you will dutifully copy those phrases down and write a sentence that says: "A major immigrant concern is the affordable housing situation." But I can't picture the affordable housing situation. Who exactly are those immigrants? Where do they live? What kind of housing is affordable? To whom? As readers, we want to be able to picture specific people like ourselves, in a specific part of the city, doing things we might also do. We want a sentence that says something like "New Dominican families on Tremont Avenue in the Bronx can't pay the rent that landlords ask." I can picture that; we've all had trouble paying the landlord.

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