Document created: 29 December 03
Air University Review, May-June 1973

A Little Thought Prevents Big Waste*

*The Imperial Cup Corporation

Some Suggestions for Clear Writing

Major James Conely

We all know that clear writing is important. We also know that the Air Force makes a continuing demand on us to improve our writing. But despite our knowing all that, we still generate too much prose with peculiar, if not in fact confusing, problems. Consider the following examples; in some of them, emphasis has been added:

    · A base newspaper recently told about a certain re-enlistment and reported, “Sgt. Smith was given a guilt edged three-day pass.” Move over, inmates—this pass wasn’t the one Sergeant Smith expected.

    · A USAF message began, “It is desirous for officers to establish direct communication with. . . .” Let your dictionary tackle that one, and don’t be surprised by what you find.

    · A wing bulletin announced an “Aircraft Accident Investigation Board Training Session.” Now then, what session was that?

    · An instructor in an Air Force survival course directed each student to “compare the rattlesnake’s tail to the structure of his fingernail.” Snakes are stranger than we thought.

    · Another USAF instructor asked his students to “place a piece of paper on the table in front of you that is free of any folds,” not, apparently, on a folded table.

And so on. Dr. Vincent McGuire of the University of Florida estimates that 75 percent of the common errors in writing are “thought” errors. For example, “When barking, I hate dogs.” A rule can be cited to correct this faulty reference, but if the writer thinks about what he says, he doesn’t need a rule either to recognize the mistake or to correct it. The same is true for inaccurate or unnecessary words, sentences that are too long or too awkward, confusing sentence or paragraph organization, and many other problems.

Consequently most of the problems we have are the ones easiest to correct, namely, errors of thought. Notice that of all the examples just given, only one is strictly a rule mistake: “gilt” in the first example is misspelled. The others could have been corrected, or at least significantly improved, if each writer had thought carefully about what he wanted to say.

Only 25 percent of the more common mistakes, says Dr. McGuire, are caused by “rule” errors. For example, “The boys is present.” In this example the problem is simply that the rule says, “Use a plural verb with a plural subject.” The only way to correct rule errors is to learn the rules and apply them. This is easy to say but not always easy to do.

But back to errors of thought.

Why are these mistakes so common? Certainly we would expect that problems so easy to recognize and so easy to solve would in fact be both recognized and solved. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen often enough. If it did, the Air Force would not have the continual need to admonish its people to write more clearly.

No one can say for sure, but there are probably five reasons why thought errors go uncorrected:

(1) People don’t read what they write. Perhaps they see the words they wrote, but that isn’t the same as reading. As their eyes glide over the page, they unconsciously overlook anything extra or omitted or inaccurate. Their meaning is too firmly in mind to see that it isn’t on the page. The answer to this is simple: proofread carefully and critically. Better yet, let somebody else proofread, or let a few days pass before you proofread yourself.

(2) People don’t think they have problems. They may consider themselves too intelligent or too simple or too average to have problems. We will allow for a few people having no problems, but the thought mistake is no respecter of persons; we are all susceptible. For example, USAF Academy cadets have written such gems as these:

The purpose of Mr. Moore’s speech was to convince and inspire the college editors he was talking to that they should attempt to maximize satisfaction to themselves and to others while in the pursuit of excellence.

*                                                               *                                                                         *

The cuisine is excellently prepared by qualified chefs ranging from tasty Maine lobster to cornfed beef from Colorado.

Highly educated, professional writers can also have problems, as in these examples from the Sociological Inquiry:

Without predicament and perplexity, the plausible and the absurd, vicissitudes remain unshared, intelligence goes unchallenged, and wisdom cannot grow.

*                                                               *                                                                         *

Having said which, it should be noted with emphasis, this entire discussion—even if fully comprehended—constitutes nothing more than a bare beginning to a full understanding of that which has been discussed.

Commissioned officers are not immune, either. An officers open mess administration wrote the membership: “It is requested that each member return the enclosed ballot as soon as possible.” The first six words could be deleted without changing the meaning or tone, but the USAF behest both to omit deadwood and avoid passive voice was no more complied with by this club than it is by most other organizations. The problem here is not serious; after all, it won’t make a discernible difference in the nation’s defense. But compound these wasted words by the length of the whole letter, the number of letters sent by that club, the number of times such waste commonly occurs elsewhere, and the problem no longer seems small.

In other words, it makes no difference what degrees we have, what rank we wear, what positions we hold, or how much experience we have; the basic problems of writing are problems for us all. The answer is simply to recognize this fact.

(3) People don’t want to insult their readers. Some people actually believe that readers who have above-average intelligence will be offended if the writing is too simple. Even if this were true, it doesn’t show proper consideration for less fortunate readers. However, no one has ever been offended by writing that is easy to understand. The answer to this? Write to express, not to impress.

(4) People don’t think clearly about what to write. Not long ago an instructor in one of the most important schools in the Air Force sat at his desk, apparently occupied, as he stared at the wall for about half an hour. A colleague came in and asked what was going on. The instructor replied, “I have to write a letter to all instructors for the boss’s signature. It’s about a new lesson procedure, and I don’t know how to write it.”

His colleague then asked, “What do you want to say?” The instructor told him. “Well, why don’t you write what you just said?” It never occurred to the instructor that it could be so easy.

We all tend to speak more fluently than we write. It is much easier, for example, to give a lecture (hard as that may be) than to write the same lecture as a paper for people to read. For some unknown reason, writing seems to tie up our thinking. The usual result is either wasted time or writing that is too vague, too general, too awkward, and too wordy.

Therefore, if the written words don’t come easily, say aloud whatever it is you want the reader to know. Then write what you just said and polish as necessary.

(5) The fifth reason for uncorrected writing is the most critical: people are often too lazy or too busy to revise what they have written. These are the people who either don’t proofread at all or else look back over their letters, handouts, or whatever and say, “My reader will know what I mean.”

This kind of thinking resulted in the following incident: Recently a captain got a letter from his CBPO notifying him of a projected reassignment at a future date. The letter also explained that if the officer wished to apply for separation instead of accepting the assignment, he should do so within a specified time after “notification of end assignment.” The captain did indeed want to be separated.

Some time later he got another letter which named a specific assignment. He then contacted the CBPO within the specified time to make application for separation. But shortly thereafter, PCS orders arrived. Furious, the officer returned to the CBPO and learned that “notification of end assignment” apparently meant the letter that projected reassignment, thereby ending his present assignment—not the letter giving the assignment he would have in the end.

Finally, after a great deal of time wasted in researching records, making long-distance phone calls, rescinding and rewriting paperwork, the problem was resolved. The person who had been “too busy” to think about and revise what he had written in that first letter ended up being even busier making other changes.

There is no more excuse for laziness in writing than in anything else. And there simply is no such thing as being too busy to rewrite.

Why is it that we so rarely assume that these problems could apply to us? Even as you read this article, you are probably thinking about similar problems that someone else has. It is easy to spot their problems:

In addition to the fine work done by the Irish regiments he assured them that many a warm Irish heart beat under a Scottish kilt. (From a London daily paper)

*                                                               *                                                                         *

Maternity wear for the modern miss. (Sign in a London store)

*                                                               *                                                                         *

Split and warmed and served with our cheese, you will be the envy of your guests. (From a catalog of a store in Sugar Hill, N.Y.)

But spotting similar problems in our own writing is not so easy. Most of us take a jealous pride in what we write. Once the words are written, we resent the suggestion that something could be wrong with them. We don’t like to check and change the words, the organization, the limits of the subject, spelling, punctuation, or anything else. And even when we admit the advisability of change, we are often unwilling to take the time to do so. Few of us challenge our own writing.

The real problem, then, is self-evaluation. Numerous guides and checklists tell how to do this, such as in this list of five reasons for problems. The basic suggestion of all these guides is think clearly about what you want to say. Then write simply, write directly, and proofread carefully.

If we develop the habit of critical self-evaluation, all the problems cited here will be eliminated. Otherwise, they will continue to occur as often and as severely as they have in the past. 

Academic Instructor & Allied Officer School


Major James H. Conely, Jr. (Ed.D., Columbia University Teachers College) is an academic adviser and writing instructor in the Academic Instructor Course, Air University. Previously he served two tours at the USAF Academy teaching English and music and as speech writer at the Space and Missile Systems Organization. He has written on education, music, and literature in the Instructors Journal, Music Educators Journal, Air University Review, and published 18 Short Pieces and Modulations for Organ. He is listed in the Dictionary of International Biography.



The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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