Thursday, April 29, 2010

Don’t write like a lawyer

Don’t write like a lawyer. If you strive to write clear, concise prose to inform, educate or entertain your readers, then lawyers are not good models for you. Lawyers write for purposes different from yours.

For example, a contract is a number of words carefully written for the purpose of precisely defining what two or more parties agree to do and what will happen if a party does not do what it agreed to do. A good contract is exhaustive: It tediously includes every possibility that the lawyers can think of. This is not prose as you and I think of prose.

Here’s a different kind of example. During a recent visit to a certain university, I noticed that the security people had posted an emergency-information placard at several locations on the campus. The placard says, in part:

What do I do in the event of an emergency?

• Assess the situation
• Keep yourself safe
• Make the environment as safe as possible
• Summon assistance

The giveaway that the lawyers wrote it

Almost certainly, the lawyers – not the security people – wrote those instructions.* The giveaway is that the instructions are so general as to be silly. They convey no more information than anyone capable of reading the placard would already know:

“Assess the situation.” What student in his right mind would fail to do this? He would do it, and he would do it accurately; for example, he would not confuse a fire with a flood, or a flood with an armed robbery.

“Keep yourself safe.” The student doesn’t need to read a placard in order to know enough not to walk into a burning building or wade into raging floodwaters.

“Make the environment as safe as possible.” Of course, but how? For example, what is the location of the nearest fire extinguisher and how do I use it?

“Summon assistance.” Would any literate adolescent not think of calling 9-1-1 if his dormitory were on fire, or if he heard screams on the floor below?

In short, the students know the instructions are silly and the lawyers who wrote them know they are silly.

Try this thought experiment

Imagine a young woman named Linda, who has received an acceptance letter from that university and will begin classes in the fall. Imagine also that Linda’s father happens to be the head of security at the same university.

If Linda asked her father about safety on campus, would he speak to her in the same empty language that he used on the placard?

Of course not. The language on the placard is not intended to inform students; it is intended to sway juries. If a student is ever burned or drowned or robbed or injured in any way, the university will have some evidence that it told students what to do in emergencies. All the lawyers want from the placard is plausibility.

But why make the instructions so general? Because if the instructions were too specific, injured students or their families could claim that the students were injured (or more severely injured) because they had followed or tried to follow the instructions.

The Takeaway: Don’t write like a lawyer. Lawyers write for purposes different from yours. Most of what they write is intended to be exhaustive, plausible or intimidating. That doesn't mean it's wrong. But it does mean it's not prose as you and I think of prose.

*I say almost certainly because there is a chance that the instructions were written by a security chief who habitually writes like a lawyer – or who was trained as a lawyer.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Straight talk: an example (4) – Richard Mitchell, “The Underground Grammarian”

For educational purposes, we writers should occasionally read or listen to a sample of straight talk. Reading or hearing straight talk wakes us up. It makes us more consciously aware of the evasive, namby-pamby diction that constantly besets us. This awareness, in turn, helps us avoid unconsciously imitating evasive diction.

Here’s an example of straight talk from a man who was famous for it: Richard Mitchell, “The Underground Grammarian.” In this passage from Less Than Words Can Say (1979), Mr. Mitchell explains why schools are afraid to teach children to read and write well:

“Unfortunately, we just don’t know how to teach skillful reading and writing without developing many undesirable and socially destructive side effects. Should we raise up a generation of literate Americans… they’ll start listening very carefully to the words and sentences of the politicians, and they’ll decide that there isn’t one of them worth voting for anywhere on the ballot. There’s no knowing where this will end. The day will come when a President is elected only because those few feebleminded citizens who still vote just happened to bump up against his lever more often than they bumped up against the other guy’s lever. A President, of course, doesn’t care how he gets elected, but he might lose clout among world leaders when they remind him that he owes his high office to the random twitchings of thirty-seven imbeciles. That will be the end of network election coverage as we know it.” (Pages 154-155.)

The Takeaway: Many of us are startled when we read or hear straight talk. We react this way because we have been habituated to euphemistical, effete, evasive diction (sample here). I advise you to occasionally take a small dose of straight talk. By contrast, it will help you remain consciously aware of evasive diction – and therefore less likely to unconsciously absorb and imitate evasive diction.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this blog is to show and explain examples of clear and unclear writing and speech. Accordingly, I select examples for the diction they contain (occasionally for the amusement they provide), not the ideas they express. I promote no religion and no political position – unless you consider clarity a political position.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

“Your final destination” and other horrors

During my 43-year career as a professional writer, I have traveled more than a million miles by commercial air. In my experience, most airline people are considerate and polite (or they were, until 2001). However, I have always been mildly irritated by the inanity of the scripts they follow, especially by the expression, “your final destination.”

Recently I was reading an article written by a writer-editor-trainer-coach whom I admire: Daphne Gray-Grant. The post was about that stupid expression, “your final destination.” She was a fellow sufferer!

But unlike me, Daphne had carefully thought out – and described in detail – her disdain for the expression. She wrote what I had thought, and more. And better.

I had been planning to write a post about the expression “your final destination.” I am crossing that item off my to-do list and referring you to Daphne’s article on the topic.

By the way, Daphne is a fine role model and source of advice for writers. I love her writing and speaking style: thoughtful, humble, direct, and quietly compelling. And lively but not cutesy.

She is especially helpful with techniques for greater productivity. So if you are working to improve the quality or quantity of your writing, subscribe to Daphne’s weekly newsletter. It’s free.

The Takeaway: As I have said repeatedly on this blog, keep learning from people who know what they’re talking about. Add Daphne Gray-Grant to your list of people to learn from.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A few amusing examples of mixed metaphors (7)

Mixed metaphors are often amusing, as these examples illustrate. However, we writers are usually more interested in informing and persuading our readers than in amusing them. Mixed metaphors may distract our readers and impede information and persuasion. Here are a few amusing mixed metaphors:

Example of a mixed metaphor

Source: The Economist print edition

A November 26, 2009 article, “The Federal Reserve under attack,” includes this:

“POPULISTS and bankers have been at odds since America’s earliest days. Its first two central banks were shuttered in the 19th century in part because of their perceived closeness to financiers. In the wake of the financial crisis those tensions have bubbled back to the surface. The central bank is again in the cross hairs.” (Boldface added.)

Example of a mixed metaphor

Source: WalesOnline

An April 12 article, “We’ll create thousands of jobs for Wales, vows Hain,” includes this:

“Reflecting on the first week of campaigning, [Welsh Secretary Peter Hain] said: ‘… we are moving up a gear to start scoring shots in our opponents’ goals.’ ” (Boldface added.)

Example of a mixed metaphor

Source: The New Yorker

A good friend who is an avid reader told me that the New Yorker used to publish amusing mixed metaphors that its editors had gathered from other magazines and from newspapers and speeches. This undated example is one of my friend’s favorites:

“The mayor has a heart as big as the Sahara for protecting ‘his’ police officers, and that is commendable. Unfortunately, he also often strips his gears by failing to engage the clutch when shifting what emanates from his brain to his mouth. The bullets he fires too often land in his own feet.” (Boldface added.)

The Takeaway: Mixed metaphors may distract your readers. They may even make your prose impossible to understand. Ideally, you should have someone edit your copy (mixed metaphors are more easily spotted by the reader than by the writer).

Disclaimer: The purpose of this blog is to show and explain examples of clear and unclear writing and speech. Accordingly, I select examples for the diction they contain (occasionally for the amusement they provide), not the ideas they express. I promote no religion and no political position – unless you consider clarity a political position.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Practical tips for writers (1) - Leo Babauta

If you’re like me, you collect lists of tips for writers. My view is: No matter how long I’ve been writing (now 43 years), I can always benefit from reading the thoughtful advice of other writers.

My favorite list is from Leo Babauta, a popular author and blogger. Of Mr. Babauta’s 15 tips, I especially like #1:

1. Read great writers. This may sound obvious, but it has to be said. This is the place to start. If you don’t read great writing, you won’t know how to do it. Everyone starts by learning from the masters, by emulating them, and then through them, you find your own voice. Read a lot. As much as possible. Pay close attention to style and mechanics in addition to content.

I agree that it “may sound obvious” and I agree that “it has to be said.” In my career as a business writer, editor and agency vice president, I have interviewed many writers who have not read great writing since high school. I have even met writers who do almost no reading at all; it would be an understatement to say that their work shows it.

As you probably know by now, I often recommend reading great writing aloud, for at least ten minutes per day. It is probably the most valuable way a writer can spend 10 minutes.

The Takeaway: Read Mr. Babauta’s list of 15 tips for writers. The tips are practical and practicable. Yes, I did notice that he gratuitously switched from third person to second person in the fifth sentence of Tip #1, quoted above. Yes, I noticed that he used the nauseatingly overused word voice. And, yes, I know he is involved in a messy intellectual-property dispute. I am not vouching for his grammar, diction or forbearance. I am only saying that his list is good.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Good jargon and bad jargon

There’s good jargon and there’s bad jargon. The good kind is a “specialized or technical language of a trade, profession, or similar group.” Insiders use this language as a form of shorthand.

For example, suppose a physicist is speaking before a group of fellow physicists. The speaker utters the phrase “Schrödinger’s cat.” The phrase refers to a well-known (to physicists) “thought experiment [that] serves to illustrate the bizarreness of quantum mechanics and the mathematics necessary to describe quantum states.”

The physicists in the audience will immediately recognize the phrase and will immediately grasp the familiar (to physicists) concepts behind them. So, in two words, the speaker has expressed perhaps two thousand words of background and has saved a lot of time. This is a good use of jargon.

Keep in mind, this kind of jargon is good only when all the members of the target audience are insiders. If some are not, the speaker or writer is talking over the outsiders’ heads – which is thoughtless and counterproductive.

Bad types of jargon

And there are bad types of jargon. That is, they are bad regardless of the audience. These bad types of jargon include:

Speech or writing having unusual or pretentious vocabulary, convoluted phrasing, and vague meaning.


Nonsensical, incoherent, or meaningless talk.

For example, here’s the opening paragraph from an email solicitation recently sent to business executives in the United States:

“we [sic] are contacting you regarding an international research project that is conducted by the RWTH Aachen University (Germany). The purpose of this research is to investigate how companies can maximize their innovation orientation by aligning their organizational structures to external situations.” (Boldface added.)

On the first page of the survey, the researchers state that they “want to analyze how firms achieve superior innovation orientation [and] if and how a focus on innovation needs helps managers to improve performance outcomes.” (Boldface added.)

The passages in boldface are certainly pretentious and vague. They may also be nonsensical, incoherent or meaningless; we can’t be certain without asking the authors what they were trying to say.

The Takeaway: Feel free to use insider technical jargon when all the members of your audience are members of your trade, profession, specialty or other in-group. With any audience, try to avoid jargon that is pretentious, convoluted, vague, nonsensical, incoherent or meaningless.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Untidy metaphors

Untidy metaphors are metaphors that look, sound and feel unfinished. When you use an untidy metaphor, your reader may not fully understand your point. You waste time – yours and your reader’s.

Example of an untidy metaphor

A published interview quoted a New Zealand politician: “…there are dangers in crossing the road [of genetic modification of food] and there are dangers in not crossing it.” The interviewer wrote: “No specifics, just an untidy metaphor prepared by someone less sharp than himself.”

Example of an untidier metaphor

If a speaker uses an impromptu metaphor, it may be so untidy that it suggests incongruous and confusing tangents.

This possibility is humorously demonstrated in a commercial in which a girl asks her mother what a certain word means. Because it is an adult word, the girl’s mother becomes flustered. She tries to give an age-appropriate answer by constructing a bland metaphor. But while she is constructing the metaphor, her daughter keeps interrupting with innocent clarifying questions that lead to humorous tangents.

The Takeaway: Whenever we create a metaphor, we should think it through, from the reader’s or listener’s point of view. In particular, we should try to foresee any tangents that may distract the reader or listener.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Concise writing is usually clear writing (12) – Russell Banks

Here’s another good example of clear, concise writing. It’s from The Sweet Hereafter,* a novel by Russell Banks (pictured).

When you are writing back-story, one challenge is to concisely provide enough detail to help the reader understand the main narrative. Like Joyce Carol Oates, Russell Banks usually meets this challenge with elegance and grace.

In this brief piece of back-story, a small-town resident describes his father:

Looking back, it seems I spent most of my youth cleaning up my father’s mess and the rest of my life making sure that no one mistook me for him. He was an impractical man, not quite honest, a fellow of grand beginnings and no follow-through, one of those men who present their children and wives with dreams instead of skills, charm in place of discipline, and constant seduction for love and loyalty. When he took off to make a fortune in the oil fields, he left behind a huge hole in the yard that was going to be a swimming pool, a pile of cinder blocks that was going to be a restaurant, a hundred old casement windows that were going to be a greenhouse, a stack of IOUs written to half the people in town, and a promise to return by fall, which no one in town wanted him to keep.

The Takeaway:
To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least ten minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful, grown-up diction and the careless, infantile diction that besets us every day. If you would like a list of recommended writers and works, please email me at the address shown in my profile. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

*Russell Banks. The Sweet Hereafter. Paperback. HarperPerennial, 1992, pages 63f.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

David Ogilvy on how to write with empathy

Here’s a famous passage on how to write with empathy, from the “The Father of Advertising,” David Ogilvy (1911-1999). The passage appears in his 1963 classic, Confessions of an Advertising Man.* It begins with a simple, powerful technique for increasing your empathy:

When you sit down to write your body copy, pretend that you are talking to the woman on your right at a dinner party. She has asked you, “I am thinking of buying a new car. Which would you recommend?” Write your copy as if you were answering that question.

(1) Don’t beat about the bush – go straight to the point. Avoid analogies of the “just as, so too” variety. Dr. Gallup [bio] has demonstrated that these two-stage arguments are generally misunderstood.

(2) Avoid superlatives, generalizations, and platitudes. Be specific and factual. Be enthusiastic, friendly, and memorable. Don’t be a bore. Tell the truth, but make the truth fascinating.

Although Mr. Ogilvy’s advice was intended specifically for advertising copywriters, it is useful to anyone who is writing to persuade.

The Takeaway: When writing to persuade, write as you would speak to an interested, intelligent stranger.

Previous posts that involve empathy:
Avoid being too academic – even if you’re an academic
If you want to build trust, don’t use jargon
Readers can't help judging you by your writing
“The Gobbledygook Manifesto,” by David Meerman Scott
When a reader says your writing is not clear
Empathy for the non-technical reader
Writing can make or break the sale
Empathy always matters – sometimes a lot
The greatest error: failure to empathize

*David Ogilvy. Confessions of an Advertising Man. Paperback. Atheneum, 1988, Page 108.