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Sunday, June 24, 2018

Robert Shea on how to write well

Robert Shea

Martin Wagner kindly sent me several letters Robert Shea wrote to SRAFederation Bulletin, put out by the Social Revolutionary Anarchist Federation. I thought this letter, in which Shea offers advice on how to write well, might be of general interest. This is from Bulletin No. 54; I don't have a date. -- The Mgt.  


Dear SRAFriends,

Regarding the problem of anarchists communicating with non-anarchists, which has been discussed by Bill Hall and Bob Wilson, I agree with Wilson that short sentences and limited vocabulary, a la Rudolph Flesch, do not represent the answer. For one thing, I don't think our communications should be aimed at some mythical entity known as the masses, who are presumed to be able to understand only Dick-and-Jane sentences. As a professional writer and editor, I've long believed that the best way to communicate is to be yourself. If you're a working stiff don't try to write like an intellectual. If you're an English professor, don't try to write blue-collar prose. Write it the way it naturally comes out, and you will find the audience that understands and appreciates the way you write -- or they will find you.

Much of the anarchist writing I've found is natural and makes good reading, especially compared to the dreary Marxoid shit that passes for prose on much of the left or the imitations of Ayn Rand and Russell Kirk that one sees on the right. I would venture the generalization that anarchists tend to be better writers than socialists or archist libertarians because their heads are freer. Inner mental freedom has a lot to do with good writing.

For anyone who wants to improve their writing, I would recommend the essay "Politics and the English Language" by George Orwell, which should be available in any well-stocked public or university library. It's one of the best essays on writing, especially political writing, I've ever read. Orwell gives six rules for writing that is free of crap and that communicates honestly what we mean to say: "i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do. iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active. v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."

Thomas Jefferson was a lifelong politician and slave-owner, but I believe we can learn something about writing from him. What he said about drafting the Declaration of Independence could apply to a lot of polemical writing, including arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things that have never been said before, "but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor  yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion."

Both Jefferson and Orwell strove for simplicity and clarity, but neither, I think, would submit his work to a readability scoring.

Bob Shea