Letters to the editor

Woodworker to woodworker

To Seth McDonnell, who wrote about restoring a family heirloom in "Shipshape" [Afterwords, Winter 2019]: That's awesome that you got your beloved wooden sailboat Sandpiper out on the water where she belongs. Great, too, that you got to keep the restoration and sailing tradition alive with your wife and daughters. Wooden boats certainly require a lot of upkeep. Hope Sandpiper is around for many generations to come.

Ash Davies

Hawthorne, California

Timeless writing tips

Every so often, the editors at Johns Hopkins Magazine receive a letter asking if we recall a story that ran in the '70s—or was it the early '80s?—about someone or other who did something kind of cool. We love a good challenge, and it gives us a chance to reminisce on the magazine of yesteryear. We recently received such a letter inquiring whether we could track down a story from the 1990s. The writer remembered reading about a professor who had posted writing tips on his door. Students found them so helpful that they would stop by to read them, and the magazine went on to publish them.

We couldn't find the story in our online archives, which date back to 1994, so this request sent us diving into our stacks of early '90s print editions of Johns Hopkins Magazine. And after flipping through photographs of teased bangs and one headline dreaming about the future of tech—"A Chip You Can Talk To ... and it will obey, right away"—we found the answer. In December 1991, the magazine published "How to Eschew Weasel Words," a writing manual developed by history Professor Ronald Walters and T.H. Kern, A&S '92. The writers confess to selfish motives for their guidelines: "It is a pain to keep writing the same comments in margins, paper after paper, semester after semester, year after year." Among the counsel doled out by the authors is this section on constructing sentences.

No amount of planning, and no beautifully constructed paragraph, is worth anything unless your sentences carry weight. A well-designed puzzle is pointless unless the pieces fit into a cohesive whole; so it is with writing. First, determine what you absolutely need to say to put your point across—the bare minimum to support your thesis. If, for example, you want to demonstrate that slavery caused the Civil War, can you do it if you only have data from antislavery newspapers? What evidence will you need?

Your topic sentences—the ones that make the crucial points in general terms—are most important: If they fail, everything does. Make certain that topic sentences occur at the beginning of the paragraphs (or, at least, are not buried in the middle), and that they are crystal clear.

Terse prose is usually your best choice for nonfiction. Long, ornate sentences are hard to control and frequently disturb the reader's concentration. Write with nouns and verbs, and avoid forcing adjectives and adverbs into otherwise innocent sentences.

For example: "The dour general's savage, unkempt, ragtag men viciously slashed their way through the prostrate countryside, laying waste to everything before them" translates to "Sherman's troops devastated the South."

As usual, Elements of Style puts it well. "The adjective hasn't been built," the authors state, "that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place." The same can be said for verbs (and we say it in the section on verbs).

Read the article in full online.

From Twitter:

"The Invisible Women," Bret McCabe's piece on women giving birth while incarcerated, resonated with the public health community.

Reading through tweets about "Plays Well With Humans," we're glad Greg Rienzi's reference to I, Robot did not go unappreciated.

Give us your feedback by sending a letter to the editor via email to jhmagazine@jhu.edu. (We reserve the right to edit letters for length, style, clarity, and civility.)

The opinions in these letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the magazine's editorial staff.