What does it mean when you think a Harvard professor can’t write?
By Heather O., Segullah Editorial Board
The other day, I unexpectedly had an hour of free time (I know, it never happens to me either. I wish I knew what stars had aligned so I could do it again). Of course I headed to Barnes and Noble. I spent some time greeting old friends on the shelves, and then settled down with a hot chocolate from the cafe and a comfy chair to read my books.
I picked up two books that caught my eye: Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, and On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. I had heard of the first, and had been meaing to read it. I hadn’t a clue about the second, but I figured any book with the words “30 Anniversay Edition” printed on the front must have staying power, and deserved a look.
I devoured Zinsser’s book in an afternoon. I felt like he was giving me the secrets of writing, and I reveled in it. I skipped some parts that were specific to journalism, but I paid close attention to the parts about the principles of writing. I was struck by his discussion of clutter.
Zinsser says people always try too hard to make their sentences sound like something an educated person would write. Most people use too many words, and most people can’t get away with it. I always knew that adverbs and adjectives were not the friend my 8th grade English teacher told me they were, but Zinsser took it beyond that. He talked about putting brackets around his students’ clutter in papers. Phrases like “I might add”, “It is interesting to note” “Due to the fact” ”With the possible exception” all got cut. ”Virtually” and “literally” are also some of his least favorite adverbs, because they are repetitive. His description of clutter in a sentence and “journal-ese” stayed with me as I turned to Miss Hurston’s novel.
Zora Neale Hurston does not use clutter in her writing. Her writing is breathtaking. Just FYI.
I was so caught up in the spirit of the novel that I actually read the afterward, something I almost never do. Here is a sentence that appears in the 2nd paragraph:
“Virtually ignored after the early fifties, even by the Black Arts movement in the sixties, an otherwise noisy and intense spell of black image – and myth-making that rescued so many black writers from remaindered oblivion, Hurston embodied a more or less harmonious but nevertheless problematic unity of opposites.”
With Zinsser’s lessons still fresh in my mind, I laughed out loud, and read the sentence to my husband.
“Wow, that’s some serious overblown writing. This guy is trying way too hard to sound smart. Who IS this blow hard, anyway?”
I checked the Table of Contents.
“Have you ever heard of Henry Louis Gates, Jr?” I asked DH.
“Um, yeah. He’s one of the nation’s leading scholars on race relations. He teaches at Harvard.”
A bell rang in my head.
“Was he the guy who was arrested for trying to get into his own house?”
“Yes, that’s him.”
So, I guess he is pretty smart.
But I am still left scratching my head. This guy breaks the rules for writing well, and I don’t think he does it for the sake of style. And the result is exactly what Zinsser describes in his book—the reader loses interest because there is too much to wade through. I’m not saying that the sentence I quoted isn’t worth decoding, or that Gates doesn’t have some insightful things to tell me about Hurston’s exceptional novel. I’m saying that the clutter in his language bogged me down.
But who am I to argue with a scholar of his merit?
It leaves me wondering what good writing is. I was behind Zinsser all the way, and a book like Their Eyes were Watching God is an example of something that can only be described as good writing. But then there is all the stuff in between that sometimes seems a little harder to categorize. I’ll admit to reading an essay that has won some award or another, and think, “Why is this considered good?” And I don’t mean that I’m dismissing it as a piece of junk, it’s that sometimes I just can’t see it. And I want to see it, because if I could, I know that would make me a better writer.
But I’d like to think that sometimes, it just isn’t there.
What does good writing look like to you?