Thursday, March 29, 2012

Negligent writing

If you’re like me, you have often received emails that you had difficulty deciphering. Usually, the cause of the difficulty is that the writing is negligent (“characterized by careless ease or informality”). The writer cobbled together a first draft, with little or no empathy for his readers, and hit “SEND.”

For example, I received an email that began with these two sentences:

“Due to the package compromise of 1.4.11,1.4.12 and 1.4.13, we are forced to release 1.4.15 to ensure no confusions. While initial review didn’t uncover a need for concern, several proof of concepts show that the package alterations introduce a high risk security issue, allowing remote inclusion of files.


In an adverbial phrase, “Due to the package compromise of 1.4.11,1.4.12 and 1.4.13,” the writer refers to an event, “the package compromise.” The syntax indicates that he presumes I have already heard of the event (I have not). By the way, this kind of writing error is known as indirection.

The writer further presumes that I know what a “package compromise” is. I do not.

He continues his indirection in “we are forced to release 1.4.15.” From the context I can guess that “1.4.15” is a software release. But his indirection suggests that he presumes I have been aware that such a release was coming. I have not been.

Then he adds the adverbial phrase “to ensure no confusions.” He assumes that I know, or can guess, what kinds of confusions he means, where these kinds of confusions occur, to whom, why, and under what conditions. I do not.

I’ll analyze the second sentence telegraphically, interspersing my reactions.

“While initial review”

Of what?

“didn’t uncover a need for concern,”

Concern about what?

“several proof of concepts”

What are “proof of concepts”?

“show that the package alterations”

What alterations? To what package?

“introduce a high risk security issue,”

Are you one of those effete writers who call problems “issues,” or do you really mean issues?

“allowing remote inclusion of files.”

Inclusion in what? By whom? That tears it! I’m switching to another vendor.

The Takeaway: When you see writing as bad as this, make a copy of it. Later, when you have some time, study the writing and draw lessons from it. Notice the phrases that were most confusing or annoying to you, and vow not to make the same kinds of mistakes.

Update, Thursday, March 29, 2012, 10:01 AM: Someone asked me if I really did switch vendors. Yes, I did.

See disclaimer.

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