Two of your genial hosts have been having a self-referential episode that readers might enjoy, if only as a Gallagher and Shean routine. I sent out to some colleagues my approximately annual update of a longish memo for students about writing, and Mark suggested I post it. OK, here it is, with some free samples:

Clearly and its treacherous kin

The phrases it is clear that, obviously, clearly, without doubt are among the most treacherous in the language. We think to emphasize and strengthen our argument with them, but they weaken and undermine, mostly because they almost always sneak in when our evidence is scarce or our argument is irrelevant, flawed, or missing. Most readers subconsciously recognize these as red flags saying, “Please read quickly past this thin spot, and don’t notice that I haven’t got a leg to stand on”. Edit them out, and check to see if you don’t need some real reinforcement, like a logical connection or some facts, to substitute for them.


The prose analog of obesity is wordiness. It’s bad for you (and your readers) and epidemic. If you have ever been diagnosed with this condition, you must get on top of it. Take a paragraph you’ve written and ruthlessly prune it of unnecessary modifiers and vacuous phrases like the fact that. Replace every adverb-adjective pair [very disagreeable] with the single adjective you really need [loathsome]: lucky you, using the language with the largest lexicon on earth. Try this with adverbed verbs, too. Then give it to a friend who writes tightly and offer her a nice treat for every five additional words she can take out. With a little practice, you can get good at this important exercise on your own and start writing (or at least ending up with) lean, tough, effective prose.

[From the Gallery of Pitfalls]:

Comprise The parts constitute the whole; the whole comprises its parts. Twenty-six letters do not comprise the alphabet; it’s the other way around. Evil forces have slipped constitute into degenerate dictionaries as a synonym for comprise in the third or so definition; let this be anathema.

Considerable Do not use to mean much or many; this usage is another athema. Use much or many for that, and save considerable to mean “needing or deserving consideration.”

He also offered (along with some specific cavils, additions, and comments) the following fairly priceless gloss, or extension, which of course I have edited lightly:

There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting. Sending out the first draft of an email is forgivable; send the first draft of a memo (except for review) only in an emergency.

Even better than rewriting is editing by someone else. Grown-ups edit one another’s prose; if you can find someone who writes better than you do and who is willing to help out by editing, you’ve got it made. And even if you write as well as anyone you know, a new set of eyes is always better; you should keep up reciprocal arrangements like this.

The very best writers care enough about their prose to send it out for review before publishing it. In school, edit marks on a paper generally meant a lower grade; in real life, the grade is assigned by the reader, not the editor. An edit is a favor and a compliment, not a criticism; you don’t have to accept it, but you should still be grateful for it. And of course, be sure to send your draft in Word form and not as a pdf; you want to make it as easy as possible to help you.

If the document is important to you, you might want to keep working on the prose until it achieves what J.K. Galbraith once called “the air of spontaneity that comes on the fifth draft.” No, he wasn’t kidding, or exaggerating; language has so many resources, and so many pitfalls, that a document will continue to yield improvement with many rewrites.

Word processing greatly reduces the cost of rewriting, and knowing you are in an “even better” mode, not a once-and-for-all one, is liberating. It means that you can concentrate your energy at the first-draft stage on getting your ideas down on paper (or on the screen), knowing that any clumsiness can get fixed later. If you don’t recall whether the word you want is “affect” or “effect,” or where the accent goes in précis, don’t stop to look it up; just keep writing, and deal with it on the second draft.

In case you’re wondering whether RBCers walk their talk, at least sometimes, you should know that he also attached an unrelated paper in draft form (very late draft form, which is a gracious way to put the bite on a colleague for this kind of help) and didn’t explicitly ask for comments, a subtlety of manner I hope to emulate when I grow up. Of course, once I opened it on the screen, and after the foregoing, it was irresistible to turn on “Track Changes” and mess with it, which led to an afternoon of exchanges about it and up to 10% improvement (if it’s more than 10% improved, I expect a really nice dinner…a long shot, as the piece was already scraping the ceiling of merit) not only in his paper, but in the one I will send to him, you betcha.

The paper in question was dangled before you here last month, with the delicious (in the current context) phrase “…we think it’s ready to go out the door.”

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.