The Secret of Good Writing

Perfect advice by William Zinsser:

The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure who is doing what–these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”

I agree completely. I have one quibble: Zinsser should have taken his own advice and replaced “adulterants” with a shorter word. But Zinsser saved me just now: In that previous sentence, I was going to say “I have one minor quibble.” But a quibble is minor, by definition. So let’s add a rule to his list: never use an adjective whose meaning is already embedded in the definition of the noun.

Zinsser follows the above quotation by writing:

And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.

He’s taking a dig at pompous over-educated intellectuals. But this hasn’t been my experience; I’ve edited early drafts of my senior colleagues, and I’ve read countless undergraduate class papers. Everyone makes the same mistakes; I don’t think they increase with stature.

*From “On Writing Well” (1976) by William Zinsser, who died May 12 at age 92. Excerpted in today’s Wall Street Journal here.

Another View of the “Mad Men” Era

I just found these old photographs from 1965, in the Newport News Shipyard Bulletin. The Newport News Shipyard is now the largest shipbuilding company in the United States (it was really big back then, too). This is my sister Cindy (left) and me (right) sitting in front of our father, an electrical engineer who worked on the Esso New Orleans, the ship pictured at the bottom on the cover of the issue. Bob Keith and Cindy Sawyer 1965 at Esso christening1965 Shipyard Bulleting Cover Esso New Orleans

A Clever Back-Handed Compliment

Ending his WSJ review of Richard Zoglin’s new book about Bob Hope, titled Hope: Entertainer of the Century, Henry Allen makes the cleverest back-handed compliment I’ve ever read:

Mr. Zoglin’s excellence as a biographer is as mysterious as Hope’s excellence as an entertainer, but here it is, an entertaining and important book. You end up feeling that (1) you’ve learned everything there is to know about Bob Hope; (2) there isn’t that much to know; (3) you’ve had a good time learning it.

U.S. Schools are Better than China’s (So Stop With the Testing Already)

In the latest New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch reviews the new book Who’s afraid of the big bad dragon? Why China has the best (and worst) education system in the world, by Professor Yong Zhao, who was born and educated in China, and now has a senior professorship at the University of Oregon. The central argument is: Yes, students in Shanghai schools led the world in the last PISA international assessment; and yes, in general, Chinese students are some of the best at getting high test scores. But in spite of high test scores–maybe even because of it–those same students don’t learn the skills necessary to be successful in today’s knowledge economy:

those test scores are purchased by sacrificing creativity, originality, and individualism….standardized tests are a victory for authoritarianism….they reflect a Confucian tradition of rote learning that is thousands of years old.

So in fact these high test scores are holding China back:

The more that China retreats from central planning, the more its economy thrives. To maintain economic growth, China needs technological innovation, which it will never develop unless it abandons its test-based education system, especially the gaokao, the all-important college entrance exams.

Professor Zhao is not the only Chinese education expert making such claims; he’s joined by a chorus of Chinese experts. Here’s Professor Zheng Yefu, from Peking University, in his popular 2013 Chinese book The Pathology of Chinese Education:

No one, after 12 years of Chinese education, has any chance to receive a Nobel prize, even if he or she went to Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge for college….Out of the billion people who have been educated in Mainland China since 1949, there has been no Nobel prize winner….This forcefully testifies to the power of education in destroying creativity in China.

Ravitch draws on these books to argue against a current move in the United States: toward additional standardized testing and accountability. The argument for assessment and accountability can sound quite reasonable: How can we know if teachers are effective unless we can measure how much their students have learned? How can we decide which educational innovations are worth adopting if we don’t know how much learning results from them? How can we decide between different policy choices, like more charter schools versus more funding for public schools, unless we know which types of schools graduate smarter students?

Ultimately, the push for more assessment is driven by market-based theories. (You generally won’t hear this in the media, only in academic papers, but it’s the only coherent intellectual argument for additional student assessment.) In capitalism, markets work on a national scale only when everyone shares the same measure of value: the national currency. We buy and sell by trading goods for money, and these exchanges create value. Conservative critics of public schools argue that public monopolies, because they’re not subject to competition and market mechanisms, don’t generate value. However, markets can’t work without a common currency of exchange, and in the case of education, that has to be a common national measure of effectiveness, based in student learning outcomes.

From the conservative perspective, this seems so logical that only a union-loving liberal, one with a weak mind and an absence of critical thinking ability, would oppose it. But Ravitch’s review shows us the dark side of additional accountability: We could turn our schools into China, and kill the high level of innovation that’s driven the U.S. economy to be the most successful in the world in the past fifty years. Her counterargument is powerful, and is grounded in historical facts: The U.S. national government first began its push for additional testing and accountability in 1983 (the Reagan era A Nation at Risk), concerned that our supposedly poor schools would lead us to economic decline; and yet, during the last 30 years, the U.S. has kicked ass in the world’s economic competition. She notes that on an international test of math in 1964, U.S. seniors scored last among twelve nations; and yet in the following 50 years, the US outperformed all the other eleven countries “by every measure, whether economic productivity, military might, technological innovation, or democratic institutions.”

This could mean that education isn’t really that important to a country’s success, but neither liberals nor conservatives believe that; and the only other possible explanation is that it means that tests are horrible measures of whether students are mastering valuable 21st century skills, the skills that really matter. Ravitch can barely hold back her contempt for arguments that schools are to blame for the 1970s oil crisis, or for the Japanese success in the auto industry in the 1980s: “When the US economy improved, would any of the politicians thank the schools? Of course not.”

Ravitch concludes her review by quoting from Zhao’s new book:

Zhao dreams of schools where the highest value is creativity, where students are encouraged to be confident, curious, and creative. Until we break free of standardized testing, this ideal will remain out of reach.

The Most Entertaining Obituary Ever…and, the Aspen Ideas Festival 2014

I’m here in beautiful Aspen, Colorado, at the tenth annual Aspen Ideas Festival. Yesterday afternoon, I gave a tutorial session about how to be more creative, drawing on my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. This morning, I woke up very early, and was reading the New York Times during morning coffee. With lots of spare time, I did something I rarely do: I read the obituaries, and I learned about a fascinating creative life, with lessons about creativity for all of us.

The musician and composer Michael Brown died on June 11th at his home in Manhattan. He was 93. You’ve probably never heard of him, but he’s one of those behind-the-scenes creators who rarely comes up when we’re talking about exceptional creativity. Brown was a true creative genius. He wrote, produced, and directed a musical that has been performed and viewed 17,000 times, more times than any other. After Brown’s musical, the second most watched musical is “Phantom of the Opera,” with 11,000 performances since opening in 1988.

The musical was called “Wonderful World of Chemistry,” performed at the DuPont pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair–at least 40 times a day, by at least 8 different companies, for months on end. “Wonderful World of Chemistry” is what’s known as an “industrial musical.” Many of these musicals were paid for by large corporations in the middle of the 20th century for advertising and promotional purposes.

Mr. Brown was “one of the genre’s most sought-after creators,” according to today’s New York Times obituary. Brown created musicals for the J.C. Penney company, Singer sewing machines, and DuPont. He made big money creating a musical fashion show for Esquire magazine in the fall of 1956. In the 1950s, industrial musicals were a big deal. Companies paid as much as $3 million to produce Broadway-style extravaganzas for their employees. (Hollywood musicals, by contrast, typically were produced for $500,000.) The musicals were usually performed only once or twice at sales conferences and managerial meetings, to build employee loyalty and motivate the troops. “Wonderful World of Chemistry” was the rare exception that was performed for the public.

A fascinating creative life, right? But wait, there’s more. In addition to his many big-budget musicals, Michael Brown played an important role in the creation of Harper Lee’s famous novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Michael and Joy Brown had met Harper Lee through her friend Truman Capote; Brown came to know Capote when he wrote the lyrics to a song in the 1954 Broadway musical “House of Flowers” with a book by Mr. Capote and music by Harold Arlen. Ms. Lee was a basically a starving artist; she had no time to write because she was barely scraping by, working as an airline reservations clerk. But both Capote and Brown saw potential. In 1956, the Browns were flush with cash thanks to the windfall from creating the Esquire fashion show musical. As a Christmas present that year, the Browns gave Harper Lee a special gift: they told her “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” That year off allowed her to write “To Kill a Mockingbird”. She told this story long ago, in a 1961 interview in McCall’s magazine, but she never identified the Browns by name.

Everyone kept the secret for almost 50 years. The story didn’t become public until the 2006 publication of “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee,” a biography by Charles J. Shields.

I’m here at the Aspen Ideas Festival, with several of my creativity research colleagues, giving talks about “The Age of Creativity.” So naturally I’m making connections between Michael Brown’s life and the many lessons about creativity that we’ve been discussing over the last few days.

  • We have many stereotypes about creative people, about famous creators like Einstein or Hemingway. But imagine: how many other creative geniuses are there, like Mr. Brown, that never make it into the popular consciousness as creative figures?
  • We associate creativity with pure art, inspiration coming from an inner inspiration or intuition. But so much creativity is in service of a customer, a client, an audience. Mr. Brown created for large companies. Does that make him less creative, somehow, than an artist who works without constraint, guided only by an inner demon or genius?
  • We think of Harper Lee as “the creator” of the famous novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But before this work could be created, supporters and friends like Truman Capote and Michael Brown provided essential support. It turns out that this is always the case with great creativity–as documented in the brilliant 1982 book by sociologist Howard Becker, Art Worlds.

In my session here at Aspen, I described one of the creativity techniques from my book Zig Zag: I call it “strange magazines.” The next time you’re in a bookstore–for example, in the airport–make a point of buying a magazine that is completely unrelated to anything you know anything about. It could be a jewelry making magazine, or a motorcycle magazine, or a guns or tattoo artist magazine. Then, thumb through and try to figure out the key concepts and issues facing readers. Make sure to look closely at the advertisements. After you’ve gotten through the magazine, put it aside, and start thinking about a creative challenge you currently face. Then, by analogy, work to find links between your problem, and the issues and concepts you’ve identified in your magazine.

If I ever write a second edition of Zig Zag, I’m going to add another creativity technique: Make a point of reading New York Times obituaries, especially of people who work in fields very different from your own. The more diverse ideas and information you put into your brain, the more creative you’ll become.

Will We Ever Invent Anything Important Again?

Two professors at Northwestern University have been arguing: Is the age of innovation coming to an end?

Professor Robert Gordon, a 73-year-old economist, argues that we’re nearing the end of a historically unusual period of rapid innovation. Professor Gordon knows that we’ve invented many amazing things in the past 250 years; he just thinks today’s innovations are puny by comparison. Reading the historical list, one might be tempted to agree with him: indoor plumbing, running water, urban sanitation, steam power, electricity (and everything enabled by it: telephone, television, air conditioning), antibiotics. Many of these innovations saved millions of lives each year. Even the most optimistic Internet visionaries can’t believe that Uber or Instagram will do that. Dr. Gordon likes to ask: if you had to choose, would you give up indoor plumbing, or your iPhone?

His colleague, Professor Joel Mokyr, a 67-year-old economist, argues that technological innovation is most likely to continue its historical trajectory, and perhaps even to accelerate. The Wall Street Journal published an article about this debate on June 16, 2014 (subscriber content only), with a graph showing a fairly linear increase in GDP per capita, like the one below.

Most economists agree with Professor Mokyr that this historical rate of growth will continue, and that it will be driven by technological innovation.

So what do you think? Are you an innovation optimist, or an innovation pessimist?

Great Quotations About Writing

As I writer, I often buy and read books about writing. Here are some of my favorite famous quotations, from the book The Writer’s Quotation Book:

A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. — Thomas Mann

Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers. — T. S. Eliot

Another illusion, seldom entertained by competent authors, is that the publisher’s readers and others are waiting to plagiarize their work. I think it may be said that the more worthless the manuscript, the greater the fear of plagiarism. — Stanley Unwin

(I include this last one because this has actually happened to me: once a complete stranger, when they found out I had published books, told me they had drafted a book, and when I offered to take a look, they said “I can’t show it to you because you’re a writer and you might steal my idea.”)