Writing Well Means Thinking Clearly

In the three or four English classes I was required to take in college, there were no lectures on the topic of writing well. We “studied” politics – exclusively by reading poorly written papers created by our peers, all combined into a parody of a textbook – but we never studied English.

Good writing is a product of clear thinking. If you can’t get your thoughts into written form, you probably don’t understand what you are thinking about. When English professors stop teaching how to write clear English, they either do it because they are unqualified to teach or because they aren’t English professors in the first place but amateur political hacks. I’m not sure which of these is worse.

I’ve since graduated college, but bad writing thrives just as much in business as it does in education. Thankfully, good writers have addressed the problem before, and yesterday I found an old piece by George Orwell which had me thinking about it again.

…quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to [bad writing]. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.

Bad writing is ugly, stale, and imprecise. It follows that good writing is better in each way. I hope in my own writing to avoid ugliness, staleness, and imprecision.

Orwell lists a few bad habits that writers should avoid. Business-speak – the dread language invented by people who wanted to seem important by using many words to say very little – seems to be nothing but these habits taken as law:

Dying metaphors … there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves…

Operators, or verbal false limbs. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry …  In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active…

Pretentious diction. Words like phenomenonelementindividual (as noun), objectivecategoricaleffectivevirtualbasicprimarypromoteconstituteexhibitexploitutilizeeliminateliquidate, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biassed judgements…

Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning…

A quick look at some recent company emails I’ve received removes any doubt that the sort of language spoken in the business world is one with a passing resemblance to English. It has English words, but unlike English, it’s purpose is not the communication of information.

Consider these incredible phrases:

  1. “distracting instability”: This is pure jargon. It appears to confer information, but it is more of a passphrase used to indicate membership in a group – the group of professional businessmen. Like all jargon, it could be replaced by a simple English expression like “
  2. “operational excellence”: More jargon. This phrase is does not mean what the English words that comprise it mean, which makes it bad. A thing which is operational is in use or ready for use. Excellence, on the other hand, is the quality of surpassing mere goodness and being great. Imagine someone using the phrase “operational red”. The only difference is substituting one quality with another. It doesn’t make any sense, either.
  3. “get the ball rolling”: A metaphor that can always be replaced by the word “start”.
  4. “bubbled to the top”: There are few more complicated or less clever ways to say “rose”.
  5. “compliant to the ever-evolving requirements related to this area”: The end of the phrase (“related to this area”) is redundant. Was there any question the requirements were related to what we’re already talking about?
  6. “opportunities for growth”: More redundancy. The word “opportunities” gets to the point without the botany reference.
  7. “tackle this challenge”: This is not only a dying metaphor, but a bad one in the first place. You don’t “tackle challenges”. Challenges are abstract, and tackling is a physical act.
  8. “eliminating potential delays”: Since potential delays, being potential and not actual, do not actually exist, it seems impossible to know what they are, let alone to eliminate them.
  9. “a ticket to entry toward building a partnership”: Another dying metaphor, this time used to pad a sentence toward artificial importance. The entire phrase “a ticket to entry toward” could be replaced with the single-syllable word “start”. Does the author know that English has such a word available?
  10. “this will allow us to ensure we not only enable”: We will do something. What will we do? We will be allowed. What will be allowed? We will be allowed to ensure. What will we be allowed to ensure? That we not only enable, but also do something else. All that this phrase adds is confusing layers of verbs. Is that a useful device in other languages?
  11. “working to leverage”: The word “leverage”, outside of physics, can always (ALWAYS) be replaced with the word “use”. And it always (ALWAYS) should be.

I’m probably guilty of business-speak and other errors in writing. This is especially so because I didn’t realize just how bad business-speak was until years after I began being forced to read it.

Useful to me, and hopefully useful to you, Orwell gives a list rules to keep in mind as you write:

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Orwell’s purpose for expounding the virtue of good writing is to avoid the political manipulation that requires bad writing to hide bad thinking. This same sort of motivation exists in the business world. Business-speak is used to hide things – ignorance, motivations, lies, manipulation, information – from readers by making those readers feel they’ve been told something important and informative.