“Screech…is the worst conceivable quality of Caribbean rum, bottled by the Newfoundland government under the Screech label, and sold to poor devils who have no great desire to continue living. It is not as powerful as it used to be, but this defect can be, and often is, remedied by the addition of quantities of lemon extract. Screech is usually served with boiling water. In its consequent neargaseous state the transfer of the alcohol to the bloodstream is instantaneous. Very little is wasted in the digestive tract1.”
When you look at the words I have written somewhere, I want very little to be wasted in your digestive tract. I want it to go down easy while it burns. I want it to surprise, yes, or to trigger a cascade of grey-matter activity, but I don’t want a word wasted. No hitches, no glitches. Chew, and swallow.
Meanwhile, reading a misspelled word is like finding the birdshot while eating a turkey. It’s kind of distracting.
A lot of things will cause a piece of writing to get stuck in someone’s gullet. Basic grammar, punctuation and spelling skills are givens. Like not burning the pie crust, they are the least people can expect of you.
Then there is the aesthetic dimension. Presentation, taste, and texture. I’m not necessarily talking about elegance, per se; after all, even a fast food burger goes down easy, and going down easy is the main thing.
Everything, then, should be turned toward that end. The sounds of the words, the tone of the phrases. Even originality and creative appeal are secondary to this one thought: to get someone to take a bite; and having bitten once, to keep on biting until he has swallowed all; and finally, to have it sit well in his stomach afterwards. Otherwise we are just wasting our time. The reader may agree or disagree, but at least don’t distract them from the matter at hand. If a person reads your whole article and keeps coming back to your condescending tone or your misplaced apostrophes, you have not done well.
There’s one more thing, and it’s about the size of your stomach. People can only eat so much at a time. Ruthless and desperate omission is an absolute requirement for those who would write. Brevity is not just the soul of wit: it is a moral virtue, and the lack of it tantamount to actual sin. Every word is potentially a traitor to your cause.
Bottled by authority of the Newfoundland government.
Lemon extract and boiling water optional.
1 Farley Mowat, The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float
“Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke: the dungeon flamed with light.”
— Charles Wesley, Psalms & Hymns, 1738