A common problem in weak writing is the “speed bump” – a hitch that causes readers to put on the brakes. Impediments to speedy and seamless flow can be errors or simply distractions such as awkward language. Whichever, speed bumps slow the reader’s progress and interfere with the message.
The best test of seamlessness is reading the work aloud: Here you run out of breath, there the tongue balks, here a misplaced or inappropriate word rankles. Reading aloud should be an automatic part of the writing and editing process. Our ear monitors what the eye may overlook: sound. I couldn’t tell you how many times writers have asked me to listen to something they’d written and then, reading it, immediately began correcting it. Well, that’s not exactly the right word, they might say, or This part is kind of clumsy, or I guess that sentence isn’t clear. … Yet, until they heard the work, they were satisfied – satisfied enough to want to share it.
Watch this reporter make a speed bump of attribution:
It was an inducement for people to participate and a reward for their participation,” Ross, who will receive $75, said.
Reading that passage aloud shows what the eye missed: The solitary verb said hangs awkwardly at sentence end. Verbs like to snuggle up to their subjects. A small change restores seamless natural order:
It was an inducement for people to participate and a reward for their participation,” said Ross, who will receive $75.
Another example of the right word in the wrong place:
The report brings together 14 years of Olympic work, starting in the late 1980s, when the city began helping Salt Lake boosters organize a failed bid for the 1998 games.
Readers are clicking along more or less happily when the words “organize a failed bid” haul them up short. The city wasn’t helping boosters organize a failed bid; it was helping them organize a bid, period. Yes, the bid ultimately failed, but that’s a separate idea and superfluous to the business of the sentence. The obvious fix:
The report brings together 14 years of Olympic work, starting in the late 1980s, when the city began helping Salt Lake boosters organize a bid for the 1998 games. That bid failed, but … .
Placement causes another reporter’s words to read like an oxymoron when he writes about “early Latter-day Saints.” The juxtaposition of the opposing words early and latter is clumsy enough to be comical. If this writer had heard the words, perhaps he would have changed early to original or founding, thereby losing a speed bump.
Inexactitude in word choice also can bring readers up short. A story lauding a resident for bringing a large jazz festival to a tiny town says that generally only big cities are “hotbeds” of jazz. A hotbed is an environment that favors the rapid growth of something unsavory or undesirable: a hotbed of civil disobedience, a hotbed of drug use, of domestic violence, of petty crime. But a hotbed of jazz? Few would consider jazz a social ill.
A newspaper report about a resident receiving the city’s Citizen of the Year award says the recipient was “duped” into attending the award ceremony. The reader stumbles over the word “duped,” which means to deceive, gull, or fool for some nefarious purpose. More exact for this context – to be lured by pretext to ensure surprise – would be that the recipient was brought to the ceremony on a ruse, or that he was tricked into attending.
Here’s a sentence from a concert review: “The music shimmered on the night air.” That would be a great effect if it were possible. Shimmer is visual; it means to shine or reflect light in a tremulous or quivering way. This writer probably meant that the music quivered or trembled, but then that’s what he should have written.
The passage that follows is all speed bump:
Now, for the first time in many centuries, technology may have finally freed us of those wars that take over and dominate the national consciousness, while decimating entire generations.
The reader must clamber over “now, for the first time in many centuries, technology may have finally freed us.” For the first time in many centuries? The writer is talking about modern technology – the kind that has changed weaponry and the way wars are fought. That kind of technology is a modern development – there wasn’t another time, ever. Then the reader gets past the redundancy “take over and dominate” only to meet the trendy “decimate.” Decimate means to destroy or eliminate a fraction of – namely, a tenth. Like many “dec” words, the meaning is built into the spelling – decade, decimal, decapod (10 legs), decathlon (10 events), December (the 10th month of the ancient Roman calendar). We can argue that decimate is so widely misused that its meaning may be changing, but controversial words or words in transition are not good choices for writers in the mass media.
The abstractions in the above passage make it trickier to fix than if it were concrete, but here’s a smoother, faster version:
Technology may finally have freed us from the conventional war that consumes a whole nation and can annihilate an entire generation.
Readers want and deserve hitch-free writing as much as wordsmiths want to create it. It helps to remember Mark Twain’s admonition to use the right word, not its second cousin.
Paula LaRocque is a consultant for The Dallas Morning News, where she was writing coach for 20 years. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.