Tag Archives: good writing

Patrick Henry on Experience and How it Informs the 2012 Race

Patrick Henry—you know, patriot, founding father, revolutionary, etc.—once said: “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.” He was looking at the lot of the common man under European monarchies and he knew, like his fellow enlightenment thinkers Donne, Locke, and others, that it was time for a change. Of course, this was when the idea of representative democracy was coming into its own, and its great experiment, the United States of America, was about to erupt as a great beacon of hope in the West. Henry’s words were a call for change, in his case revolutionary change. In last night’s debate, we that same message, though not quite as simply nor as eloquently put.

As he has in his previous debates, Mitt Romney stuck to a simple, straightforward message: The foreign and economic policies of the past four years have left us weakened and unable to properly meet the challenges we face around the world. He backed up that assertion in a way that would make Patrick Henry proud; he cited the experiences of the last four years.

Obama had a slightly more difficult job: He had to defend his policies in the face of Iran’s constantly developing nuclear technology; our obscene levels of national debt, unemployment, and general economic ruin; the resolute resurgence of Russia and China; our inability to properly deal with Al Quida…in other words, the experiences of the last four years that were the direct result of his policies. As a result, he did his best to go on the offensive, citing apparent flip-flops on the Romney side and doing his best to criticize his proposals for the navy, at one point reminding Romney that we no longer use bayonets as much (he’s wrong about that), and describing the aircraft carrier in terms that made me wonder whether or not he’d actually seen one. I have to wonder whether or not that kind of snarky absurdity helped or hurt him.

We’ll learn that as the dust settles and we look for changes in the polls. However, partisanship aside, this debate was instructive in one respect. Experience counts. We have all experienced the last four years, we have all seen what has happened both here and overseas, and we have all felt the direct consequences of Obama’s economic policies in our wallets. For true believers on either side, the actual results don’t matter, they will argue that their guy has won. Happily, neither group is enough of a voting block to elect a president. For the rest of us, this debate was a reminder to look at the experiences of the last four years and ask a question: Do we want more of the same?

I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.–Patrick Henry

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The Honest Politician

Everyone likes to think that their guy is honest. If you are a democrat, odds are you thought that Joe Biden was more honest than Paul Ryan; if you are a republican, odds are good you took the opposite position. That goes to two things: the credibility of the candidate, and the bias of the audience.

In my October 4, 2012 entry, Romney and the Joy of the Simple Message, I discussed how a simple, straightforward message that can pass the test posed by Ockham’s Razor by relying on the fewest number of assumptions is best, and how Romney’s jobs first message, in passing that test, was the more credible, a fact that certainly contributed to Romney’s victory. We saw much the same from Ryan, though he dealt with more topics than Romney faced, and that approach served him well; but we saw something in Biden’s performance that can serve as an example to writers, orators, or anyone else who tries to convince others that their point of view is correct.

Early in the debate, the issue of the terrorist attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, came up. When confronted with the issue, Biden made up excuses, including a slowly evolving intelligence assessment that began as the “riots against that anti-Islam film” story but eventually settled on the truth, that it was a terrorist attack that had nothing to do with any film, Islam-related or not. He claimed that no one asked for more security, and then went on to attack Romney for his reaction to the killings.

This exchange is so telling, and makes such a clear object lesson on the necessity of honesty, because the truth came out a week before the vice-presidential debate! The news has been filled with stories of the spin that the Obama Administration has tried to put on the Benghazi attack, along with proof that the embassy staff were begging for additional security as well as proof that those pleas fell on deaf ears in Obama’s State Department and, likely, elsewhere in the Executive Branch.

When so confronted, Biden had two choices: He could argue and lie, knowing that the truth was already out there; or he could admit everything and have a mea culpa moment on behalf of Obama and himself. Biden chose the former, and that was a fatal mistake. The history of politics has taught us that the cover-up is always worse than the shame or guilt being hidden; the lie is always more damaging to the liar. The old biblical canard, “the truth shall set you free” is true, and ought to be the watchword of writers, artists, and politicians alike.

For most folks who do not fall within the “democrat true believer” camp, the obvious lie about the embassy attack destroyed any credibility Biden had. Therefore, the question to be asked is, given the notoriety of the issue, and the fact that the truth is already out there, why not make the integrity move, take responsibility, and seek forgiveness? Also, why not do that on some of the other issues, where we already know the truth in spite of the Obama Administration’s various explanations. Biden would have done his ticket a real favor by being honest with the American People, and he would have bolstered his own credibility in the debate, perhaps to a point where his grins and grimaces would not be front page news this morning.

So, how does this apply to writers? Simple: Readers know when you are lying. Treat them with respect and tell them the truth, and you will be amazed at how your work takes off!

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Legalese: A Crime Against Language

There is plenty of bad writing in the world. Sometimes it comes from sloppy thought being put to paper, and sometimes it is simply good, honest, illiteracy. It is always good to find out why the writing is bad, because then you can offer a solution. I think that I have answered one of the great “why” questions of bad writing, because after graduating law school, and spending some time in the profession, I have developed a very good grasp of legalese. You know what I am talking about, that atrociously obtuse verbiage volcanically spewed out by lawyers. It shows up in legislation, it shows up in contracts, briefs, complaints – anywhere the stained digits of a lawyer have intruded – and I understand it, and with that understanding comes the answer to why it exists in the first place.

Ready? Sitting down? There are two reasons for this onslaught of verbal refuse. Here they are…

The first is an attempt to balance precise meaning with the need to maintain argumentative wiggle room. For example: “This contract shall be construed under the laws of the state in which the contract was executed.” Seems pretty clear and first blush, but it isn’t. Shall be construed by who? Both parties? The party to be charged? Who? What if it is signed by one party and mailed out of state to the other party for their signature? Which state law controls? We can make reasonable assumptions that both parties shall construe the contract in this way, but what if evidence of an agreement to the contrary arises? Why not just say “This contract is governed by the laws of State X”? There is no construing involved, no question; just a simple, basic statement.

This brings us to the second reason: Billable hours. While there are many good and caring people in the legal profession, people who work hard and fight valiantly for their clients; in my humble opinion most lawyers seem to care more about billable hours than they do about putting out a good product, that is written documents. A dry, stuffy, complex document rife with archaic words and phrases takes longer to produce than a simple one, it causes more misunderstandings, which are more opportunities for legal action including litigation. All of that equals more billable hours, which equals more money.

 So, when you enter into a contract, make sure the document is written to your advantage, not to the advantage of the lawyer who drafts it. Keep is simple, with one idea in each paragraph, with the parties clearly identified throughout either by name or by their role in the agreement (Landlord, Tenant), with bullet-point lists where necessary that are easy to read, and language that declares the contract expresses the entire agreement and that if one part of it is struck down in court, the rest of the contract will stand and remain enforceable.

Good writing, especially legal writing, is simple and concise. Simple, concise legal documents are fair and equitable to all concerned. Tell me, especially in this day and age, don’t we all deserve a little fairness?

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