Trend Stetting 15: Speak Easy

Mia Lipman on May 08, 2012

ElbowAnother column, another orange book. I know—I'm a broken aesthetic record. But David Orr's ode to poetry and Peter Elbow's Vernacular Eloquence have little in common besides their complexion. Orr exemplifies journalistic brevity, while Elbow, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, expounds heartily and at length in the best collegiate tradition.

Stuffed with citations, long gray sidebars, and subheads that run to multiple lines, Vernacular Eloquence may seem daunting if you have only one or two academic degrees to your credit (and none from Oxford). Brave it out, though, and you'll be handsomely rewarded with a fascinating explanation of how everyday speech and writing differ—and why we ought to bridge the divide not by striving for more formality in how we talk, but by taking a more conversational approach to how we write.

"Just because we know enough to do something well doesn't make it easy," the author notes in his empathetic introduction. In fact, writing well is so hard that it scares many aspiring wordsmiths, even those who would happily—and skillfully—chat for hours. Arguing that "spoken language is more coherent than written language," Elbow points out that for inexpert writers, the final draft of a piece often makes less sense than the first. Why? Because we fret, overthink, and recast in an attempt to mold our simple, clear arguments into the complex set of standards associated with "good" writing.

That's not to say we should never make revisions or follow basic rules; I shudder to think. But when we worry too much about correctness as we try to express ourselves, we may wind up curbing our voices for the worse. Even if you're not an Oxonian, Elbow suggests you steal a page from the famous school's playbook and try reading each draft out loud: You'll spot errors more easily and improve the fluidity of your writing. If we apply the confidence of what we say to what we put on the page, we might manage to achieve a kind of (dare I say it?) eloquence.

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