For the week of March 28, 2016

The art of second thought

By John Schlageck, Kansas Farm Bureau

Dear reader,     

Every Western movie worth watching features at least one full-blown bar room brawl. Such tumultuous scenes are chock full of good guys, bad guys, flying fists and whiskey bottles.

Smack-dab in the middle of all this mayhem there’s always one unlucky cowpoke crawling under the tables toward the swinging doors and safety. After dodging falling bodies, busted-up furniture and shattering glass he crawls into the dirt street where he checks himself for holes, stands up, dusts himself off and skedaddles down an alley.

And so it is with many of us veterans who toil in the word vineyard. Like the cowpoke, some of us have escaped into the street of social media with our finely-honed writing skills intact.

I’d say that’s one heck’uva accomplishment, although one rarely recognized or valued. With each passing day it seems less and less emphasis is placed on the written word, grammar and punctuation.

We’re all too busy. Not enough time. 

Include greetings or salutations in Facebook, texts or e-mails?

What are they?

Where’s the personal touch?

Whatever happened to etiquette in written communication?

Writing is the art of second thought. What first springs to mind is seldom good enough.

The skill of writing lies not in a ready gush of words, but in sifting through them carefully. Sometimes this process is swift. Other times it takes a bit longer.

A letter, e-mail or text should be clear, precise, succinct and expressive. Few can decipher one or two letters, hacked-up phrases and excessive punctuation.

Choose the best word to say what you want to convey. Never settle for meaningless exclamation points, bold-faced or underlined words.

Select strong sentences. Use the active tense. Avoid passive tense and words that end in ing. Whenever possible, pick short, one-syllable words.

Write with small words – good ones – that say all you want to say, quite as well as the big ones.

As I discovered many years ago when I read Joseph A. Ecclesine in Printer’s Ink, 

There is not much, in all truth that small words will not say – and say quite well.

Small words can be crisp, brief, and terse – to the point like a knife. They dance, twist, turn, sing. Like sparks in the night they light the way for the eyes of those who read.

They are the graceful notes of prose. You know what they say the way you know a day is bright and fair – at first sight…Small words are gay. And they can catch large thoughts and hold them up for all to see, like rare stones in rings of gold, or joy in the eyes of a child.

Some make you feel, as well as see: the cold, deep, dark of night…the hot, salt sting of tears.

In case you didn’t realize it, Ecclesine’s words above were all one syllable – no punctuation, except periods.

Vary the length of your sentences. This will give your paragraphs rhythm. Short sentences are likely to be clearer than long ones and easier to read.

Keep an average sentence to a length of 12 words or less.

Good luck. Write soon.

Sincerely, (formal)

Later, (informal)

John Schlageck

John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.