Monday, December 17, 2012

Don’t go out of your way to confuse your readers

One of the greatest sins a writer can commit is to go out of his way to confuse his readers.

It’s bad enough to confuse your readers inadvertently or accidentally. We all do it: While writing, we select a wrong word. While editing, we recast a sentence but forget to delete parts of the old sentence. While proofing, we fail to notice that a few words are missing from the middle of a paragraph.

These are all forgivable sins.

But it is an unforgivable sin to contaminate, without  a very good reason, something that is already clear and already published.

Here’s an almost unbelievable example: A few years ago the technology company Network Solutions decided to rename some of its long-established services. By doing so, the company confused and annoyed an untold number of its loyal customers.

Blogger John Graham-Cumming told the tale better than I ever could, so I refer you to him.

The Takeaway: If you ever notice that you are feeling excited and giddy because you have suddenly seen a way to take an old, humdrum phrase and make it cleverer or cuter, take a cold shower. Then go back to your desk and reconsider the change you are about to make. You need a very good reason to risk confusing readers who are familiar with the old phrase. Make the change only if you are certain it is worth the risk.

P.S.: You probably noticed that the Network Solutions marketing people used the trendy but illogical phrase “focused around.” I do hope the customer service people don’t think and write like that.

See disclaimer.

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