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How to Say Nothing in 500 Words
It’s Friday afternoon, and you have almost survived another week of classes. You are just
looking forward dreamily to the weekend when the English instructor says: “For Monday,
you will turn in a five-hundred-word composition on college football.”
Well, that puts a good big hole in the weekend. You don’t have any strong views on
college football one way or the other. You get rather excited during the season and go to
all the home games and find it rather more fun than not. On the other hand, the class has
been reading Robert Hutchins in the anthology and perhaps Shaw’s “Eighty-Yard Run,”
and from the class discussion you have got the idea that the instructor thinks college
football is for the birds. You are no fool, you. You can figure out what side to take.
After dinner, you get out the portable typewriter that you got for high school graduation.
You might as well get it over with and enjoy Saturday and Sunday. Five hundred words
is about two double-spaced pages with normal margins. You put in a sheet of paper, think
up a title, and you’re off:
Why College Football Should Be Abolished
College football should be abolished because it’s bad for the school and also bad for the
players. The players are so busy practicing that they don’t have any time for their studies.
This, you feel, is a mighty good start. The only trouble is that it’s only thirty-two words.
You still have four hundred and sixty-eight to go, and you’ve pretty well exhausted the
subject. It comes to you that you do your best thinking in the morning, so you put away
the typewriter and go to the movies. But the next morning you have to do your washing
and some math problems, and in the afternoon you go to the game. The English instructor
turns up too, and you wonder if you’ve taken the right side after all. Saturday night you
have a date, and Sunday morning you have to go to church. (You shouldn’t let English
assignments interfere with your religion.) What with one thing and another, it’s ten
o’clock Sunday night before you get out the typewriter again. You make a pot of coffee
and start to fill out your views on college football. Put a little meat on the bones.
Why College football Should Be Abolished
In my opinion, it seems to me that college football should be abolished. The reason why I
think this to be true is because I feel that football is bad for the colleges in nearly every
respect. As Robert Hutchins says in his article in our anthology in which he discusses
college football, it would be better if the colleges had race horses and had races with one
another, because then the horses would not have to attend classes. I firmly agree with Mr.
Hutchins on this point, and I am sure that many other students would agree too.
One reason why it seems to me that college football is bad is that it has become too
commercial. In the olden times when people played football just for the fun of it, maybe
college football was all right, but they do not play football just for the fun of it now as
they used to in the old days. Nowadays college football is what you might call a big
business. Maybe this is not true at all schools, and I don’t think it is especially true here at
State, but certainly this is the case at most colleges and universities in America
nowadays, as Mr. Hutchins points out in his very interesting article. Actually the coaches
and alumni go around to the high schools and offer the high school stars large salaries to
come to their colleges and play football for them. There was one case where a high
school star was offered a convertible if he would play football for a certain college.
Another reason for abolishing football is that it is bad for the players. They do not have
time to get a college education, because they are so busy playing football. A football
players has to practice every afternoon from three to six, and then he is so tired that he
can’t concentrate on his studies. He just feels like dropping off to sleep after dinner, and
then the next day he goes to his classes without having studies and maybe he fails the
(Good ripe stuff so far, but you’re still a hundred and fifty-one words from home. One
Also I think college football is bad for the colleges and the universities because not very
many students get to participate in it. Out of a college of ten thousand students only
seventy-five or a hundred play football, if that many. Football is what you might call a
spectator sport. That means that most people go to watch it but do not play it themselves.
(Four hundred and fifteen. Well, you still have the conclusion, and when you retype it,
you can make the margins a little wider.)
These are the reasons why I agree with Mr. Hutchins that college football should be
abolished in American colleges and universities.
On Monday you turn it in, moderately hopeful, and on Friday it comes back marked
“weak in content” and sporting a big “D.”
This essay is exaggerated a little, not much. The English instructor will recognize it as
reasonably typical of what an assignment on college football will bring in. He knows that
nearly half of the class will contrive in five hundred words to say that college football is
too commercial and bad for the players. Most of the other half will inform him that
college football builds character and prepares one for life and brings prestige to the
school. As he reads paper after paper all saying the same thing in almost the same words,
all bloodless, five hundred words dripping out of nothing, he wonders how he allowed
himself to get trapped into teaching English when he might have had a happy and
interesting life as an electrician or a confidence man.
Well, you may ask, what can you do about it? The subject is one on which you have few
convictions and little information. Can you be expected to make a dull subject interesting
? As a matter of fact, this is precisely what you are expected to do. This is the writer’s
essential task. All subjects, except sex, are dull until somebody makes them interesting.
The writer’s job is to find the argument, the approach, the angle, the wording that will
take the reader with him. This is seldom easy, and it is particularly hard in subjects that
have been much discussed: College Football, Fraternities, Popular Music, Is Chivalry
Dead?, and the like. You will feel that there is nothing you can do with such subjects
except repeat the old bromides. But there are some things you can do which will make
your papers, if not throbbingly alive, at least less insufferably tedious than they might
Avoid the Obvious Content
Say the assignment is college football. Say that you’ve decided to be against it. Begin by
putting down the arguments that come to your mind: it is too commercial, it takes the
students’ minds off their studies, it is hard on the players, it makes the university a kind
of circus instead of an intellectual center, for most schools it is financially ruinous. Can
you think of any more arguments just off hand? All right. Now when you write your
paper, make sure that you don’t use any of the material on this list. If these are the points
that leap to your mind, they will leap to everyone else’s too, and whether you get a “C” or
a “D” may depend on whether the instructor reads your paper early when he is fresh and
tolerant or late, when the sentence “In my opinion, college football has become too
commercial,” inexorably repeated, has brought him to the brink of lunacy.
Be against college football for some reason or reasons of your own. If they are keen and
perceptive ones, that’s splendid. But even if they are trivial or foolish or indefensible, you
are still ahead so long as they are not everybody else’s reasons too. Be against it because
the colleges don’t spend enough money on it to make it worth while, because it is bad for
the characters of the spectators, because the players are forced to attend classes, because
the football stars hog all the beautiful women, because it competes with baseball and is
therefore un-American and possibly Communist inspired. There are lots of more or less
unused reasons for being against college football.
Sometimes it is a good idea to sum up and dispose of the trite and conventional points
before going on to your own. This has the advantage of indicating to the reader that you
are going to be neither trite nor conventional. Something like this:
We are often told that college football should be abolished because it has become too
commercial or because it is bad for the players. These arguments are no doubt very
cogent, but they don’t really go to the heart of the matter.
Then you go to the heart of the matter.
Take the Less Usual Side
One rather simple way of getting interest into your paper is to take the side of the
argument that most of the citizens will want to avoid. If the assignment is an essay on
dogs, you can, if you choose, explain that dogs are faithful and lovable companions,
intelligent, useful as guardians of the house and protectors of children, indispensable in
police work—in short, when all is said and done, man’s best friends. Or you can suggest
that those big brown eyes conceal, more often than not, a vacuity of mind and an
inconstancy of purpose; that the dogs you have known most intimately have been mangy,
ill-tempered brutes, incapable of instruction; and that only your nobility of mind and fear
of arrest prevent you from kicking the flea-ridden animals when you pass them on the
Naturally, personal convictions will sometimes dictate your approach. If the assigned
subject is “Is Methodism Rewarding to the Individual?” and you are a pious Methodist,
you have really no choice. But few assigned subjects, if any, will fall in this category.
Most of them will lie in broad areas of discussion with much to be said on both sides.
They are intellectual exercises and it is legitimate to argue now one way and now
another, as debaters do in similar circumstances. Always take the side that looks to you
hardest, least defensible. It will almost always turn out to be easier to write interestingly
on that side.
This general advice applies where you have a choice of subjects. If you are to choose
among “The Value of Fraternities” an “My Favorite High School Teacher” and “What I
Think About Beetles,” by all means plump for the beetles. By the time the instructor gets
to your paper, he will be up to his ears in tedious tales about the French teacher at
Bloomsbury High and assertions about how fraternities build character and prepare one
for life. Your views on beetles, whatever they are, are bound to be a refreshing change.
Don’t worry too much about figuring out what the instructor thinks about the subjects so
that you can cuddle up with him. Chances are his views are no stronger than yours. If he
does have convictions and you oppose them, his problem is to keep from grading you
higher than you deserve in order to show he is not biased. This doesn’t mean that you
should always cantankerously dissent from what the instructor says; that gets tiresome
too. And if the subject assigned is “My Pet Peeve,” do not begin, “My pet peeve is the
English instructor who assigns papers on ‘my pet peeve.’” This was still funny during the
War of 1812, but it has sort of lost its edge since then. It is in general good manners to
Slip out of Abstraction
If you will study the essay on college football . . . you will perceive that one reason for its
appalling dullness is that it never gets down to particulars. It is just a series of not very
glittering generalities: “football is bad for the colleges,” “It has become too commercial,”
“football is a big business,” “it is bad for the players,” and so on. Such round phrases
thudding against the reader’s brain are likely to convince him, though they may well
render him unconscious.
If you want the reader to believe that college football is bad for the players, you have to
do more than say so. You have to display the evil. Take your roommate, Alfred Simkins,
the second-string center. Picture poor old Alfy coming home from football practice every
evening, bruised and aching, agonizingly tired, scarcely able to shovel the mashed
potatoes into his mouth. Let us see him staggering up to the room, getting out is econ
textbook, peering desperately at it with his good eye, falling asleep and failing the test in
the morning. Let us share his unbearable tension as Saturday draws near. Will he fail, be
demoted, lose his monthly allowance, be forced to return to the coal mines? And if he
succeeds, what will be his reward? Perhaps a slight ripple of applause when the thirdstring center replaces him, a moment of elation in the locker room if the team wins, of
despair if it loses. What will he look back on when he graduates from college? Toil and
torn ligaments. And what will be his future? He is not good enough for pro football, and
he is too obscure and weak in econ to succeed in stocks and bonds. College football is
tearing the heart from Alfy Simkins and, when it finishes with him, will callously toss
aside the shattered hulk.
This is no doubt a weak enough argument for the abolition of college football, but it is a
sight better than saying, in three or four variations, that college football (in your opinion)
is bad for the players.
Look at the work of any professional writer and notice how constantly he is moving from
the generality, the abstract statement, to the concrete example, the facts and figures, the
illustration. If he is writing on juvenile delinquency, he does not just tell you that
juveniles are (it seems to him) delinquent and that (in his opinion) something should be
done about it. He shows you juveniles being delinquent, tearing up movie theatres in
Buffalo, stabbing high school principals in Dallas, smoking marijuana in Palo Alto. And
more than likely he is moving toward some specific remedy, not just a general wringing
of the hands.
It is no doubt possible to be too concrete, too illustrative or anecdotal, but few
inexperienced writers err this way. For most the soundest advice is to be seeking always
for the picture, to be always turning general remarks into seeable examples. Don’t say,
“Sororities teach girls the social graces.” Say “Sorority life teachers a girl how to carry on
a conversation while pouring tea, without sloshing the tea into the saucer.” Don’t say, “I
like certain kinds of popular music very much. Say, “Whenever I hear Gerber Spinklittle
play ‘Mississippi Man’ on the trombone, my socks creep up my ankles.”
Get Rid of Obvious Padding
The student toiling away at his English essay is too often tormented by a figure: five
hundred words. How, he asks himself, is he to achieve this staggering total? Obviously
by never using one word when he can somehow work in ten.
He is therefore seldom content with a plain statement like “Fast driving is dangerous.”
This has only four words in it. He takes thought, and the sentence becomes:
In my opinion, fast driving is dangerous.
Better, but he can do better still:
In my opinion, fast driving would seem to be rather dangerous.
If he is really adept, it may come out:
In my humble opinion, though I do not claim to be an expert on this complicated subject,
fast driving, in most circumstances, would seem to be rather dangerous in many respects,
or at least so it would seem to me.
Thus four words have been turned into forty, and not an iota of content has been added.
Now this is a way to go about reaching five hundred words, and if you are content with a
“D” grade, it is as good a way as any. But if you aim higher, you must work differently.
Instead of stuffing your sentences with straw, you must try steadily to get rid of the
padding, to make your sentences lean and tough. If you are really working at it, your first
draft will greatly exceed the required total, and then you will work it down thus:
It is thought in some quarters that fraternities do not contribute as much as might be
expected to campus life.
Some people think that fraternities contribute little to campus life.
The average doctor who practices in small towns or in the country must toil night and day
to heal the sick.
Most country doctors work long hours.
When I was a little girl, I suffered from shyness and embarrassment in the presence of
I was a shy little girl.
It is absolutely necessary for the person employed as a marine fireman to give the matter
of steam pressure his undivided attention at all times.
The fireman has to keep his eye on the steam gauge.
You may ask how you can arrive at five hundred words at this rte. Simply. You dig up
more real content. Instead of taking a couple of obvious points off the surface of the topic
and then circling warily around them for six paragraphs, you work in and explore figure
out the details. You illustrate. You say that fast driving is dangerous, and then you prove
it. How long does it take to stop a car at forty and at eighty? How far can you see at
night? What happens when a tire blows? What happens in a head-on collision at fifty
miles an hour? Pretty soon your paper will be full of broken glass and blood and headless
torsos, and reaching five hundred words will not really be a problem.
Call a Fool a Fool
Some of the padding in freshman essays is to be blamed not on anxiety about the word
minimum but on excessive timidity. The student writes, “In my opinion, the principal of
my high school acted in ways that I believe every unbiased person would have to call
foolish.” This isn’t exactly what he means. What he means is, “My high school principal
was a fool.” If he was a fool, call him a fool. Hedging the thing about with “in-myopinion’s” and “it-seems-to-me’s” and “as-I-see-it’s” and “at-least-from-my-point-ofview’s” gains you nothing. Delete these phrases whenever they creep into your paper.
The student’s tendency to hedge stems from a modesty that in other circumstances would
be commendable. He is, he realized, young and inexperienced, and he half suspects that
he is dopey and young and inexperienced, and he half suspects that he is dopey and
fuzzy-minded beyond the average. Probably not only too true. But it doesn’t help to
announce your incompetence six times in every paragraph. Decide what you want to say
and say it as vigorously as possible, without apology and in plain words.
Linguistic diffidence can take various forms. One is what we call euphemism. This is the
tendency to call a spade “a certain garden implement” or women’s underwear
“unmentionables.” It is stronger in some eras than others and in some people than others
but it always operates more or less in subjects that are touchy or taboo: death, sex,
madness, and so on. Thus we shrink from saying “He died last night” but say instead
“passed away,” “left us,” “joined his Maker,” “went to his reward.” Or we trio to take off
the tension with a lighter cliché: “kicked the bucket,” “cashed in his chips,” “handed in
his dinner pail.” We have found all sorts of ways to avoid saying mad: “mentally ill,”
“touched,” “not quite right upstairs,” “feeble-minded,” “innocent,” “simple,” “off his
trolley,” “not in his right mind.” Even such a now plain word as insane began as a
euphemism with the meaning “not healthy.”
Modern science, particularly psychology, contributes many polysyllables in which we
can wrap our thoughts and blunt their force. To many writers there is no such thing as a
bad schoolboy. Schoolboys are maladjusted or unoriented or misunderstood or in need of
guidance or lacking in continued success toward satisfactory integration of the
personality as a social unit, but they are never bad. Psychology no doubt makes us better
men or women, more sympathetic and tolerant, but it doesn’t make writing any easier.
Had Shakespeare been confronted with psychology, “To be o …
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