How Great Generals Win:
The 13 Rules of War from Ancient Greece to the War on Terror
History 361, Longwood University, Farmville, Virginia
The only reason we write or speak is to communicate. The best writing and the best speaking are what we get across easily to our readers or our audiences. We feel a poem is great, not when it contains unusual or highfalutin words, but when it communicates a deep thought or emotion. “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” is an incredibly simple sentence, but it strikes at nearly everyone’s heart. There is nothing “poetic” in this line from John Keats. But its simplicity and clarity open a great depth of understanding.
In our writing and our speaking we should seek simplicity and clarity, with the aim to make our thoughts understandable to others. Slang understood by only a minority and writing in all lower-case letters set up barriers to understanding. We should be creating the opposite—broad open boulevards along which our readers or listeners can travel to follow our thoughts. The easier it is to understand what we're saying, the better our communication will be. We should use the standard rules of capitalization that our language was worked out. We should use simple words that everyone knows. We should save big words for those times when we really need them—not to impress others, but to nail down a subject. One day, for example, autochthonous may be the right and proper choice to describe something original. But in everyday writing we should be content with more readily understood words with close to the same meaning—native or indigenous.
The first step in writing is to state for ourselves the premise. To do this, we should outline the elements contained in the subject—not our own views about them, but the actual facts. This outline does not have to be exhaustive. Simply listing the main elements is highly clarifying. The process will prevent us from making a common mistake: deciding in advance what we are going to say. Thomas Jefferson said it best: “We should follow truth wherever it may lead.” Once we have located our basic facts, we can write our narrative.
We should reach for clear and coherent thoughts. Good writing is following truth and isolating truth’s simplest elements. Many years ago, the city editor of the ChicagoTribune explained how to teach this process to young reporters. New reporters and students share the same dilemma. They are bombarded with what seems to be an impossibly large body of facts, many apparently contradictory. From these they are obliged to sort out salient issues, principles, and conclusions. This sorting out process can be overwhelming, especially for an inexperienced reporter flung into a breaking story, such as a plane crash or a bank robbery.
The Tribune editor had an effective technique to teach the new reporter how to sort out critical information quickly and accurately. When the reporter came rushing into the newsroom, he was usually confused, agitated, and unsure of what the key elements were. The editor at once stopped him, and asked the following question: "What happened?"
This question has an amazing capacity to concentrate the mind. The reporter would stop, think hard, wipe ancillary or less-important facts from his mind, and blurt out the crucial elements. It might go something like this: “A plane crashed into Windsor Farms neighborhood about 8 o'clock this morning. It broke a lot of trees and power lines, then ran into a house, setting it afire. There was a baby upstairs. The mother ran out, but a passerby climbed up on the roof and rescued the baby before the fire did it any harm.” Thus, the reporter himself extracted the essence of the story from a jumble of facts.
People in general follow this same process. In moments of stress we will nearly always compress facts to their essentials. Examples: “My girlfriend just dumped me.” “I just got a ticket for speeding—and the cop cited me for not wearing a seat belt.” In each case, there is much more to the story, but the speaker goes first to the heart of the matter.
If we follow this procedure, we will write with more precision and clarity, and this will make our writing compelling and interesting.
Use active voice
In active voice, the subject creates or makes the action. Example: “The soldiers [subject] rushed headlong [action] against the enemy ramparts.” Passive is formed by combining the verb to be and the past participle. In passive voice the subject receives the action, he does not originate it. Active voice is much more vivid than passive. Passive voice is weak and indecisive. Active: “The robbers attacked the men.” Passive: “The men were attacked by the robbers.” Passive: “We were frightened by them.” Active: “They scared the bejeebers out of us.”
Know these rules
It's is always a contraction of the words it is. Examples: “It’s time for us to write correctly.” “Whenever I touch you it’s magic.” Its is always a possessive form of the pronoun it. Examples: “The hurricane passed yesterday, but its effects will linger.” “ New York City is large and impersonal but its neighborhoods are often places of charm and warmth.”
Who’s is always a contraction of the words who is or who has. Examples: “I’m the one who’s responsible for everything.” “He’s the guy who’s been hanging around.” “Once I get my hands on you, you’ll know who’s boss.” Whose is always a possessive form of the pronouns who or which. Examples: “Whose hands, whose lips, whose sighs are these?” “The Mississippi is a river whose tentacles reach into the very heart of the continent.”
People who make mistakes with these four constructions reveal they don't have command of the English language. Bosses often have little time to judge individuals, and candidates’ use of these four terms is a quick test to separate the possible winners from the probable losers. The same applies to persons whose language includes verbal tics such as “like”, “you know” and “I mean”. Verbal tics gravely damage our effectiveness as speakers, and give the impression that we cannot think clearly and have poor command of the language. We should listen to ourselves talking. Once we’re aware that these tics are part of our speech pattern, we’ll be able to stop.
Use the Thesaurus and dictionary
Beginning writers often use words they know over and over again, and they use words they think they know, but don't. The first mistake leads to dull and repetitious writing. The second leads to fuzzy thinking. The best discipline we can ever follow is to check the dictionary to make sure the word we're using is doing what we think it is. We should read the definition. We should not assume we know what a word means because we've been using it forever. Also, a word may have shadings of meaning. The definition will give these, or give us synonyms. This will enable us, in many cases, to use another word that more exactly says what we want to say. Use of the Thesaurus is the second best discipline we can follow. The object may be merely to get another word that means more or less the same as a word we've been using ad nauseam. However, when we run down the list of similar words, we'll often find another that has a slightly different meaning but does the job better. The overriding reason we should use dictionary and Thesaurus, however, is that they get us in the habit of knowing what we are actually saying, not what we think we're saying. Tip: don’t rely on the Thesaurus on the computer. It’s quite limited. We should look up a word in the index of a printed Thesaurus, then check out the numbered citations, even some we don’t think apply. Sometimes these other sources give us insights we hadn’t thought of.
Tell a story
History has always been considered a branch of literature because the best history tells a story. Indeed the Latin and Greek roots of the words story and history are the same. People like to read and hear stories. The principal reason why some people don't like history is that they've been forced to read books that are long on facts but short on story line. If we view our history-writing assignments as an opportunity to tell a story, we will achieve three valuable goals: 1) we will construct our story with a beginning, a middle, and an end—that is, an exposition of the matter, an explanation or discussion of the matter, and a climax, coda, or summary; 2) we will produce a piece of writing that is interesting and riveting in itself, and 3) constructing a story line will lead us naturally to put our subject into a comprehensive package. This is how we construct a story to explain something to a friend. A friend will insist that we make ourselves clear. If we always write to make a person we know and respect understand us, our writing will be vastly improved.
Plots are few
We can further improve our writing if we follow one of the seven plots human beings have developed to tell stories. Christopher Booker spent 34 years writing The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. The plots with examples are as follows: Overcoming the Monster: Beowulf, Jaws, Jack and the Beanstalk; Rags to Riches: David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, Cinderella, Superman, Pygmalion; The Quest: Odyssey, Divine Comedy, Watership Down, Don Quixote, Babar and Father Christmas, Moby Dick; Voyage and Return: Alice in Wonderland, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Robinson Crusoe, Candide; Comedy: Crocodile Dundee, The Importance of Being Earnest, Private Lives, The Inimitable Jeeves, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Tragedy: Macbeth, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, King Lear; Rebirth: Sleeping Beauty, A Christmas Carol, Silas Marner, The Secret Garden.<< Back to top