Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Business Writing Bad

by Branden R. Williams, CISSP, CISM

Have you noticed that most of the business writing you read is hard to understand? Or that the author did not run a simple grammar or spelling check? Complain if you must about Microsoft Word reminding you to use active voice and pointing out all your sentence fragments and verb agreement. Word’s spell check feature is good for creating a document without spelling flaws; but a perfectly spelled document can still be difficult to read or understand.

“Step 1: Extinguish the precipitous rubescent LED-based luminosity.”

The Thesaurus wants to be our friend. His content is like crack—your first synonym is free. Instead of using the word “hint” you find that “clue” is a much better match for your writing. It’s a win-win (or as Michael Scott learns, a "Win-Win-Win"). Once you are hooked, the Thesaurus starts charging for finding synonyms. No, you don’t slip a twenty inside the pages of the Thesaurus, close your eyes and speak the word you need a synonym for, and the book magically falls open to a page written for you. Instead, the cost is much higher—your career.

Companies have developed a poor vernacular that removes the readability from memos, e-mails, policies, and other internal documents. We’ve all read language like what you see above and wondered, “Why can’t they just say ‘Turn off the solid red light?’” This is a major problem with writing in business. Often we write to try to sound smart; but instead our readers toss our writing in the garbage because they can’t understand it. Murky, jargon-laced writing does not make you smart, it makes you difficult to understand and ultimately an ineffective communicator.

William Zinsser highlights writing for business in his book “On Writing Well.” He says, “Managers at every level are prisoners of the notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind. Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking.” It’s easy to use jargon, but hard to write in a manner that everyone can understand. Simple writing is usually the result of laborious rewriting and revising. Write (and rewrite) to a tenth-grade level and watch the clarity in your writing rise above your peers.

The other writing problem I often see is simply the abuse of our language. I’m not talking about the minor bruises from ending a sentence with a preposition, or adding ‘ize’ to any noun or adjective to make it into a verb (can we PLEASE stop that). I’m referring to the bludgeoning caused by poor sentence construction, overuse of passive voice, and cluttering phrases such as “due to the fact that” and “it should be noted.” Microsoft Word’s grammar check can only do so much. Reading your writing aloud can catch much more.

One way to remove the excess clutter from your sentences is to remove words and see if the sentence changes meaning. If the words are required to keep the meaning the same, then leave them in. Otherwise, use that delete key! Zinsser says that he hates writing, but loves rewriting.

The moral of this column is to take the time to ensure that every word plays its part in the end, just like a composer scrutinizes every note in his symphony. Better writing output shows that you care about your legacy. Just a small amount of time spent learning the language will demonstrate your utility and ensure you a spot at the top!

About the Author:

Branden R. Williams is an Information Technology and Strategy Leader sought after by the world’s foremost corporate executives. His rare combination of technology and business expertise have gained him respect and recognition among global top named clients and industry insiders. To learn more about Branden and his expertise visit his website.


How Not To Write said...

Impenetrable business documents drive me nuts. Unfortunately, it's hard to stop people from writing like this once they get started. It's like a disease...

"Highly Contagious Documentarianism Reported on the 6th Floor, cc With Caution"

Great post, Branden!

Joyce Boadt said...

Great post! You're right, it is difficult to produce clear, understandable memos. I do have one addition. Don't forget about the use of acromynms. Our company is so gaga over acronyms, that we had to publish a corporate acronym dictionary.

Anonymous said...

Very nice post. 10th grade might be a little high for some of the cube dwellers I worked with. Unless, you only write for exects, the important thing is to know your audience. In the business communication class I was in last summer, the teacher was telling us to think about dropping down even further, 6th to 8th It was surprising to hear but the reason is becasue we are in an international culture now where our large range vocabulary is not known outside our borders.Going for the more common word is a better shot that you will be understood. And THAT is your number one goal.

Roland Hesz said...

"Companies have developed a poor vernacular that removes the readability from memos, e-mails, policies, and other internal documents."

And that is quite intentional. What is the use of a policy or contract or memo which can be understood by everyone?
It is the legacy of the old bureaucratic languages all over the world, where the goal was to show that the office and the officers are superior, more intelligent, and so on, than the simple people.

I think that mentality is still alive, as you point it out - simple sentence, simple mind.

And the most beautiful result of these writings are when someone takes a memo - say, in English - written in corp style, and translates it into another language - say, to Hungarian -, corp style of course. As the two languages are probably not compatible, and the translator does not really understand the original text, you end up with the most unintelligible heap of words you can ever imagine.

Mission accomplished.

Branden said...

Thanks for the kind words folks!

Words For Hire said...

@how not to write - I could not agree more! Stop the madness already!

@Joyce, thanks for stopping in Joyce and offering your addition. You know you're in trouble when you need a corporate acronym dictionary! Wow! I bet they put it together with a straight face too not even realizing how utterly insane it was to need one.

@Wendi, I agree with you. In Corporate marketing we aimed for 6th to 8th grade level for precisely the reasons that you cited. Like most writers I enjoy the elegance of words but when writing for a general audience you should aim to make the language accessible to everyone, don't you think?

@Roland, *sigh* it really is sad that we seek to use language as a barrier isn't it? The funniest thing is that we all have like and respect the smart people who are able to make the complex simple. Think back to teachers who took tough subjects and broke it down so that you not only got it but grew to love it! We don't impress by sounding superior, but by being real.

Branden said...

Wendi: I didn't even consider the international angle. We regularly work with global businesses, and I've had to take techno-speak and translate it into one and two syllable words to help my audience understand.

Roland: Excellent point on top of Wendi's comment. Same thing happens in the tech industry. I can't imagine how some of that comes out.

Ellen Wilson said...

Yes, it a product of people trying to sound intelligent when they only spin themselves in circles. This is a big part of political speak, also.

The problem is is that the speaker expects you to be flamboozled, so you won't think any deeper. Except when you do think deeper, you realize how stupid it is.

Words For Hire said...

@Ellen, sadly so many people are not even paying close enough attention to realize that they are being flamboozled..but I guess that's a post for another day! ;-)

Anonymous said...

It's funny as I don't come from a business writing angle, but an academic writing angle, and yet much of what you write here, Brandon, that applies there too. I mark a lot of essays and my main aim when doing so is to give constructive feedback so that my students can progress and develop strong writing skills. A few of the problems that I find are a) obfuscation and b) padding. Obfuscation comes when I know they've written their essay with that thesaurus lying open at their side. Some seem to think that by using the longest words and the most convoluted sentence structure they will have achieved the sought after 'formal' style. Couldn't be further from the truth, unfortunately. If I can't follow your argument, something went wrong. Padding is when they've used phrases like 'could be seen as' and 'should be noted that'. What I've discovered during my time as an English tutor is that padding belies a lack of confidence. It shows me that my student doesn't believe in their own argument and therefore they are going to try and cover it up by strapping all this padding to it. The essays get considerably better once they cast off all those garments of obfuscation and padding. This stands to reason that it's the same for business writing too. It can be scary writing naked words though, but as long as you have a strong belief in what you're writing, through clear writing, your meaning will shine through.

As I seem to have written my own essay in the comment box, I'll stop there.
Great post, Brandon! You really got me thinking this morning. No easy task before 10am ;-)

Brad Shorr said...

Excellent post and commentary. People deploy business speak when they don't know how to write and/or don't bother to think. Many a time I've questioned someone on the meaning of a phrase he had written, and he doesn't know. If you can't explain an idea in plain English, it's a sign you may not know what you're talking about.

Branden said...

liveslessordinary: I remember being guilty of that myself. It was not until I had a professor put a maximum page limit on a paper that I realized how much padding I used.

Brad: Absolutely. That supports the international angle as well. Sometimes the most basic English is all that you have!

sexy said...