I often rail against nonsensical pronouncements about language and writing. Today I’m going to turn the tables and rail a bit against my own nonsense.
There are words and expressions I cannot abide. I just used one of them, and it is taking every bit of willpower I can muster not to go back and delete it.
Here it is: I can’t stand the expression “a bit.” It’s weak. If something is small and insignificant enough to warrant the term “a bit,” why are you even talking about it? (I don’t like “every bit” either – for the same reason.)
Here’s another one I can’t stand: “in today’s society.” Based on my experience with thousands of student essays, there’s roughly a 100% chance that any essay containing the phrase “in today’s society” is going to flounder and sputter without every getting to anything interesting.
I just stopped typing for a moment to try to figure out why “in today’s society” always points to a weak paper, and I think I’ve found the answer. No society is homogeneous. There are always conflicting forces and clashing ideas. When a student writes about “today’s society,” that’s a sure sign that she hasn’t done much research or analytical thinking.
But I said at the beginning of this post that I’m focusing on my own nonsense. Of course it’s possible to use the expressions “a bit” and “in today’s society” thoughtfully and intelligently. Here’s my real point: Words sometimes spew out of us at such a rapid rate that we fail to notice that we don’t have anything to say.
Don’t let that happen to you. Start looking for your own red flags. What verbal habits do you fall into when you don’t have something interesting to say? Learn to recognize them and – more important – start building habits that will help you uncover interesting ideas. Develop your curiosity. Read. Expose yourself to new experiences.
Here’s one practice that I wish I had stumbled on much earlier in my own life: Studying the thinking habits of other people. I read Carolyn Hax’s advice column in the Washington Post every day because – at least half the time – she has a completely different approach to a problem than I would have taken. I’m working on opening my brain up to new and different ways of thinking.
In today’s society we all need to do that a bit more often.