It’s Whatever Wednesdays and as per usual, this will be kind of a random post about writing style. My writing style is kind of unique and weird. I tend to write as if I am having a conversation with someone. The other day I was trying to think about why I write like I do and I made a quick list in my phone.
While this may be boring for some, it offers me the opportunity to reminisce a bit about my past.
If you decide to read this, you may be acquire some insight(s) as to the kind of person I am.
If this doesn’t interest you, go to my the Start Here section instead.
I had a combined English/History honors class in high school. The class was taught in an orthodox manner for the time. I am dating myself a bit here, but this was my sophomore year in high school, back in 1997. The class was a two class block and there was a kind of a melding of the two subjects. Our tests were usually a combination English/History test in a 2 hour block consisting of essays. Needless to say, it was rough, especially for sophomores in high school to sit and write for that long. As much difficulty as I had with the class, it did prepare me somewhat for the future when I would have to concentrate for long periods of time. For that, I am thankful.
Ok, so back to writing style. My history teacher was a younger guy, fresh out of college, and he really disliked passive voice. Like a lot. My tests would come back with either “Be more specific” or “Be more direct” written in red in the margins for pretty much every single paragraph. I tried to keep my sentences concise and my voice active. This forced my examples in the essays to be more specific and more direct. By the end of the year I finally managed to get a test back without the dreaded red pen everywhere. I didn’t know it, but this history teacher shaped my writing style for years to come.
At Berkeley, there was a class which satisfied both the English 2nd semester requirement and the History requirement. Now, since I was pre-med, I was just trying to get all my other requirements out of the way as quickly and efficiently as possible. This class was German R5B. I don’t know if this class still exists, but if it does, I’d recommend it. The class size was very small, I think there were only 10-15 students total. The instructor was one of the grad students and he was really laid back and chill. The first assignment was to write an essay of less than 500 words on 1 of 3 prompts. To be honest, I don’t remember the prompts, I just remember thinking that this course is going to be easy.
I took an hour or two and busted out a normal 5 paragraph essay. Easy peasy right? I’ll just turn this in and get an A like clockwork. I mean, I had done fine back in high school in AP Literature and stuff, how hard could it be? The essay came back and…
I got a D+.
OUCH. Luckily, the instructor said the grade on this first exam didn’t mean anything. He was just trying to gauge our abilities. So basically, in his opinion, I was bad.
One of the other students in the class was also pre-med like me and we had talked a bit in passing. However, we compared our grades for the first assignment (of course) and were relieved that we had both done equally poorly. To be fair, Jason did better than me, but not by much. At this point, Jason and I decided to help each other out with editing. Both being pre-meds, we needed As in this class.
Back to my D+. Since 1997, I had picked up bad habits again.
Passive voice. Too much fluff. No substance. Poor grammar. Basically, I was writing on the level of a grade schooler again.
Kevin, the instructor told us that every word we write has to have meaning. If it can be left out, then do so. Words are precious he said, don’t waste them. On future essays he would tell me how many LESS words I could have used to convey the same message. I worked very hard in that class. It was probably the hardest class of that semester for both me and Jason alike. However, if I recall correctly, we both did end up getting As. I took a lot of what Kevin said to heart. I try my best not to waste words… but sometimes my bad habits still shine through.
Side note: In that class we read a great book “Me Talk Pretty One Day” by David Sedaris. I’d recommend it for some leisure reading.
You can find it anywhere, but here is a link to Amazon for convenience.
Also, if you were wondering, Jason went to medical school. He’s now an OB/GYN in New York City, and he’s always been an awesome guy. We still talk once in awhile.
Fast forward many years to radiology residency. There was an attending there who worked with the first years pretty heavily. Although he was semi-retired he really enjoyed working with and shaping the first years. Being a resident you have to develop your own style of dictating. Some prefer to be concise, others like to comment on very specific things, and some feel the need to comment on everything. Developing this sense comes with experience. This particular attending focused on being concise but direct.
One time I was dictating a chest x-ray and Paul, the attending, was listening to me. I had a bit of trouble with how much to say and what to comment on and I think he could tell.
He said: “Walter. The chest x-ray. Negative or positive?”
I said “Negative.”
He replied, “Ok then. How many words do you need to say ‘normal’?”
Those words hit me like a hammer. I still remember those words today when I dictate cases.
More so than that, it shapes how I write as well. I only add adjectives if I believe they help convey my messages. I try not to use two sentences, if one will work just the same.
Overall, I try to eliminate fluff as best I can. However, my writing style also tends to be conversational as if I am talking to you. For that reason, I still tend to be verbose at times, as you can tell by some of my lengthy posts.
Nonetheless, the combination of being concise, direct, and specific with a conversational tone is my style.
Be more direct. Be more specific. Thanks Craig.
Words are precious. Don’t waste them. Thanks Kevin.
How many words do you need to say ‘normal’? Thanks Paul.
Agree? Disagree? Questions, Comments and Suggestions are welcome.
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