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Don’t use a scalpel to peel an apple

One of my favorite people was the legendary football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. One event stands out. Coach Bryant had won more games than had any other coach, and his institution, The University of Alabama, had won more national championships than any other institution. A rookie player had made a great touchdown and had let everyone know it by spiking the ball. The Bear calmly called him over to the bench and said, “Son, don’t act like this is the only time you have ever made a great play.”

I liked the Bear because he had class. He saw beyond the play. He even saw beyond the game. He never signed a player before talking to the player’s mother. He let her know that to him, playing ball was secondary; his main goal was to have her son earn a college degree. And like another great coach with class, Joe Paterno, the Bear used his own money to provide academic scholarships for his players.

When I evaluate manuscripts, I think about that kid who celebrated his success by showing off. The majority of the manuscripts I read have this kid’s name all over them. Every big, fancy word and every paragraph-long sentence, filled with jargon says, “Look at me. I am a scholar. I have my terminal degree!” Where did we ever learn to equate erudite, pompous writing with scholarship? Jargon isn’t necessarily bad. When needed, it is an important tool, like a scalpel is to a brain surgeon. But in the manuscripts I evaluate, when I rake back the jargon, I don’t see the great thoughts of a surgeon. In fact, I don’t see much of anything.

Most editors are scholars, and real scholars will not be impressed with two-dollar words when 25-cent words will work better. When you write, forget the editor. Write directly to the readers as though you were trying to help them. Isn’t that the purpose of writing? Can’t you help them more by using simple, familiar words, short paragraphs, and crisp sentences?

Because I am approaching my word limit, let’s make one quick return to the football field. One of my favorite quarterbacks was Jay Barker. Jay didn’t have a particularly strong arm. In fact, many people criticized him saying that he had a weak arm. Jay wasn’t known for his complex strategies or his erudite game plans. In fact, Jay didn’t seem to have any of those features that make a quarterback glow. The only thing Jay seemed to have going for him was a simple knack for winning. He held one of the best winning records ever held at the school that had won the most national championships. When I receive journal manuscripts to evaluate, I always hope to find at least one written by a Jay Barker who, without boast or brag, just quietly gets the job done.

My assignment was to give a tip. So, here’s my tip. Don’t write until you have something worth saying. Then, say it simply and clearly, and stop.

Kenneth Henson a Fulbright Scholar and a National Science Foundation Scholar, has written and co-authored more than 300 national publications. His 50-plus books include five books on writing for publication and two 
Phi Delta Kappa fastbacks (monographs) on this topic.

Editor’s Note: This article will be published in a new book by New Forums, Inc. in Stillwater, Oklahoma, entitled, It Works for Me, edited by Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet.