Vital Signs


This speech was delivered in April at the Webb School, a private secondary school in Knoxville, Tennessee.

I try not to put on airs about what I do for a living. I would never tell you that writing is dignified enough to be called a profession, like being a doctor or an architect. Writing is a trade, or to use a better word, a craft. It does, however, take a lot of work to become any good at it, and while I am not a good writer yet I am getting a little better with practice, and I take comfort in that.

One thing I have learned from making my living writing is that cliches are death. They don't just ruin your prose style. They are rotten shortcuts people use instead of thinking, or to keep others from thinking, or sometimes to lie.

When somebody who is bright enough to speak clearly starts using big cliches, or talking in meaningless sentences, watch out. I will give you an example: When I was an undergraduate at Yale, I ended up party to suit against the university. It was a classic First Amendment case: certain parties at the university were trying to put our magazine out of business because they did not like the articles we printed. It is a long story I will not go into now, but my point is that the first lawyer we hired might as well have been speaking Hindustani to us. He always explained what he was doing in language that was absolutely incomprehensible.

All of us who had brought...

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