From the Letters to the Editor column of the May 2006 Perspectives

More on Style

David Kahn, May 2006

To the Editor:

Jerry Z. Muller rightly complains that academics write poorly (March 2006 Perspectives). He correctly prescribes using the active voice. But every sentence except the first and the last in his first two paragraphs has "was" as its main verb!

May I offer two rules for writing that I apply and that might help others?

(1) Use active verbs, as Muller said. Often a verb hides under a noun. For example, "The relation of A to B is as X to Y" can become "A relates to B as X to Y." This tightens the text and puts an engine into every sentence.

(2) One sentence, one idea. The qualifications can go into the next sentence. Admittedly this requires repetition. But it clarifies the text. Harder for the writer; easier for the reader.
I have often thought that it would benefit historians—and judges and bureaucrats and anyone else who has to write—if they worked a couple of years on a tabloid under a tough editor. They would learn to write directly, briefly, and fast..

—David Kahn
Great Neck, NY