June 30, 2015

Authors Against Flowery Language


Ernest Hemingway editing writing

Ernest Hemingway editing writing

“You can phrase things clearer and better. You can remove words which are unnecessary and tighten up your prose.” This note-to-self was found among Ernest Hemingway’s papers early last year. It is an intimate and humbling reminder that one’s writing can always be “clearer and better.”

CJ Busby, along with 35 other well-known children’s authors (Carnegie Medallist Tanya Landman and Tim Bowler, author Sophia Bennett), have taken on Hemingway’s mantle and are preparing to write the UK’s education secretary about the “too elaborate, flowery and over-complex” language students now learn.
The authors…say that national curriculum assessment criteria have become a “prescription for how to teach children to write (to pass the tests), with quite adverse effects on their writing skills”…[C]hildren are taught “not to use simple words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘small’ or ‘big’ but to always find other more ‘interesting’ words to replace them – such as ‘wonderful’, ‘terrible’, ‘minuscule’ or ‘enormous’”.
Many us experienced this in the classroom. My English folder from elementary schools was stuffed with sheets of synonyms for “said” and “good,” among other so-called lesser words. Yet for all the five syllable words I conjured up, my writing read not the least bit better. In fact, many of my old papers have a startling resemblance to Mad-Libs, with adjectives pushed in all the wrong spaces. This issue, author and poet Jon Dougherty states, is the crux of the problem.
“We’re teaching [children] [good prose] means stuffing writing with adjectives, rather than that good writing is about communication, and will vary depending on what you’re trying to communicate, what kinds of emotions you’re trying to stir up, what kind of character you’re trying to put into their minds.”
Indeed, very often the most beautiful sentences are the most simple. “Every day above earth is a good day,” wrote Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea. This sentence somehow speaks millions, and I challenge you to find a word better than “good” to fit it.