Why do so many smart people in business and public service write and speak so badly? A UK judge recently accused a social worker of writing in such dense bureaucratic terms she might as well have been speaking a foreign language. What did “imbued with ambivalence” and “having many commonalities emanating from their histories” actually mean? And how did this help anyone decide if a child should be taken away from its mother?
If you’re writing bull, here’s three steps to help you sound more human.
Step 1: Work out why you write so badly.
It’s probably down to fear. Many of us are afraid we don’t belong, afraid someone will tap us on the shoulder and say “I’m sorry, there’s been a terrible mistake. We’ve just realised you don’t know what you’re doing, please leave.” So we copy the language and manners of those around us, the better to fit in.
Then there’s the fear that what we need to say is unpleasant and will upset the listener. So we reach for euphemisms like “downsizing”. The pain is still there, but with added confusion and mistrust.
Keep an eye out for these fears when you sit down to write, they are red flags predicting bull.
Step 2: Be sure of what you want to say and why.
What do you believe in? What are your values? How do they inform what you’re trying to do? In the case of the social worker, I bet she believes in giving vulnerable children the best chance of happiness. Does that mean sometimes making tough, painful decisions? Yes? Then say so. Explain why your values make you act the way you do.
Think about your listener. What are their values? Do they trust you to be honest? What language do they feel comfortable with? You owe it to them to be as clear as you can – on their terms, not yours.
Step 3: Re-write, with help from the masters of 20th century prose.
Write down everything you want to say. Read it back and underline all the moments you felt fear. Underline any section where you’re not sure about the values behind it. Chances are this is where you’re writing bull.
Now re-write, with advice from three masters of 20th century prose: Winston Churchill, George Orwell and David Ogilvy.
Churchill: “Short words are best and the old words, when short, best of all.” So engage in a process of extinguishing, eliminating, de-prioritising… No, try to strike out any long, modern word and use old, short words instead.
Orwell: “Never use the passive when you can use the active.” Passive is a fudge, allowing responsibility to be evaded. “Concerns were raised…” No, tell me who raised concerns about what and who responded.
Ogilvy: “Write the way you talk. Naturally. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, attitudinally, judgementally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.” Enough said.
For more tips on great prose writing:
Five writing tips from Winston Churchill’s “finest hour” speech.
George Orwell’s five rules for effective writing.
And David Ogilvy’s 10 tips on writing clearly.