Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Writing is Rewriting

Rare is the writer who gets it right the first time. Most first drafts are flawed and need to be fixed. If you skip this step, readers will come to an early conclusion: flawed writing, flawed writer. Remember our truism: Bad writing makes smart people look dumb.
Be on the lookout for unnecessary abstractions, cliches, jargon, coined and clipped words, unexplained acronyms, and senator Maury Maverick's infamous world of gobbledygook.

The Fog Versus the Concrete

Abstract words and phrases are hard for readers to understand because they are open to interpretation. If you are writing about silver dollars and the Franklin Mint, don't write "antique coin" and "coin manufacturer." Those are abstractions. On the other hand, "silver dollar" and "Franklin Mint" are concrete terms.
Abstractions have their place, but should never be used when detail is needed. Readers trying to find real information in abstract writing often call out, "This is fluff, blue sky, fog, motherhood, smoke screen," or something less complimentary.

Get to Know Cliches

Cliches show up in conversation and in all kinds of writing because they can summarize a train of thought in a few words. Someone trying to explain the causes behind a particular effect may give up and say, "That's the way the cookie crumbles." If you choose a cliche or any other expression that has been around for a long time, make sure it justifies itself within the context of your purpose.
The final test will always be this: Will it help readers better understand what you are trying to convey? And, as always, keep your reader in mind. If your boss asked you to justify your budget over-run last quarter, you would be ill-advised to write, "That's the way the cookie crumbles."

The Secret World of Jargon

Often identified as the most damaging fault of bad business writing, jargon is similar to abstractions and cliches in that it can have a legitimate role in business writing. Unfortunately, the role of jargon is often misunderstood or misused.
Jargon is a communication shortcut, and often saves time when we are communicating with someone who knows what we're talking about. Too often, though, we pass jargon on to others who do not know, people who are too distant from our immediate circle to know our unique "shop talk."

Jargon should be used only within our respective circles, circles that are typically much smaller than we think. There is no guarantee, for example, that managers and supervisors will understand jargon created by their own subordinates.
When you write, you must continually try to judge the location of the jargon "border," that invisible line that separates those who will understand from those who will not.

Remember: Misuse of jargon is perhaps the most damaging fault of bad business writing because the writer does not take the time to analyze the audience.

Coin One, Clip Another

Coined words represent our desire to be creative, to invent new terms and expressions that we think will be more descriptive than anything the language has to offer. Such attempts usually backfire, however.
One writer created the term vanized, believing it to be a new and inventive way of referring to surveillance equipment that had been modified to fit in a van. Unfortunately, he forgot to share the meaning with his readers.

Clipped words illustrate our continual efforts to condense the language, to speed communication as much as possible. We can say hype faster than we can say hyperbole, sync faster than synchronization. Like jargon, clipped words can help us communicate quickly and effectively when the occasion warrants, but are always suspect in formal writing.

BCWA...("Be Careful With Acronyms")

Like jargon and clipped words, acronyms represent one more communications shortcut. For example, you may choose to write SPEBSQSA instead of Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America. There is no harm in this -- if you are writing to members of the society who know the acronym.
But if you're not, and you neglect to tell your readers what SPEBSQSA stands for, you will give them the impression that you don't care if they understand or not. Along with the wrongful use of jargon, the growing abundance of unexplained acronyms is another major flaw in failed business writing.

Now That's a Real Turkey

In the 1940's, Texas senator Maury Maverick ordered his staff to stop writing cliches, abstractions and other political doubletalk, ending his own memo with, "Anyone who uses 'affectation' will be shot." His crusade failed, unfortunately, and all that remains is the term he coined, gobbledygook, referring to his caricature of pompous politicians strutting around like turkeys, spewing meaningless versions of the language.

You know you are in for gobbledygook when a memo or speech begins with something like, "It has been ascertained that if a significant reversal of determinants initiates a value-added...." Gobbledygook is a combination of many faults, including jargon, cliches, mangled grammar, abstractions, and vague subjects and verbs. It is the language of concealment and evasion. As one political scientist observed, "To subvert an organization, you must first subvert the language."

Finally, when you have finished editing your material, ask an objective someone to look at your work. Objective reviewers often find flaws that we cannot.


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