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Op-Ed

Really bad writing

October 14, 2022

If you’ve got a story to tell, tell the story. No need to dress it up in a tutu.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

Many moons ago, my late friend John Van Doorn strolled ‘round the newsroom flashing a $5 bill, promising it to whoever wrote the worst lede sentence in the next 30 minutes. Need I tell you I won?

Let’s do some proactive forward-thinking pre-planning and unpack it and build some synergy toward a working consensus and run it up a flagpole and see if anyone salutes.

Pretty bad, huh?

But not as bad as the lede that won me those five smackers.

And I came up with both winners justlikethat. No thinking involved. Just memory, reflex and desire. For 5 bucks, the first time, and this time just for practice.

You will get your money’s worth today. This is the worst writing I can do.

Here is a true story, from the days when I was a freelance writer (broke, despairing, no fixed residence, family to support) and I got a job interview at a place I shall not name. It was a school. One of the first questions the panel asked me was how to teach people to write.

I responded, truly, that you can learn more about writing, more quickly, by reading something really bad than you can by reading something really good.

I did not get the job, because that’s not what they wanted to hear.

But what I said was true, and still is.

I explained to the people who did not hire me that it’s way easier to point out the flaws and idiocies of bad writing, and explain why it’s bad writing, than it is to explain why a piece of good writing is good. Or excellent writing is excellent.

Some of the best writing I ever got from trying to teach it for 15 years was from kids who could barely write.

I recall one essay from a young man who spoke English as his third language. It began: “Baseball is played by nine men on a diamond from the sky.” I disremember the rest of it, but that sentence has stayed with me for 52 years. I gave him a B+, because I did not want to appear easy. Also because I do not believe he’d ever received a B+ in English before. He went on to become an excellent student. When he knew he needed a word — often an adjective — but could not nail down what word it was, he left a blank space between the article and the noun: an excellent trick; one I recommend.

Another trick I learned from Gertrude Stein, by way of Hemingway. Now, I can’t stand Gertrude Stein. I’m not sure if what she did was even writing, and she sounds like a horrible person as well. But she did tell young Ernie that if he ever was particularly proud of a word he used, to strike it out. I didn’t understand that one for a long time — until I became a city editor.

A young reporter approached me at my throne — I’m sorry, I mean at my desk — and asked what was a good word to use about a motorcycle accident in which a young man lost his right leg below the knee. “A horrible accident?” “A terrible accident?” “A gruesome accident?”

I suggested: “How about, ‘a motorcycle accident in which he lost his right leg below the knee.’?”

Again from brother Hem: “The adjective is the mortal enemy of the noun.”

If you’ve got a story to tell, tell the story. No need to dress it up in a tutu.

Or, from the master of us all, Mark Twain: “Never use a 50-cent word where a 5-cent word will do.”

OK, here is the worst sentence I ever wrote — worth 37½ cents a word to me it was.

Mother Nature unfurled scrumptious breasts from her cloudy brassiere Tuesday, showering rain, warm as milk, upon our fair city and the Greater Metro Area, all unprepared for a sudden drop of 7 degrees Fahrenheit, and gusty winds.

Now that is some bad writing.

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