One thing you can do to improve your writing

A few weeks before I started my long leave, I was walking past a coffee shop on my way to work and I had an overwhelming desire to go in and order scrambled eggs and a large flat white and just sit outside in the sunshine watching the world go by.

It seemed like a much better option that going into the office and facing a barrage of emails and work requests, and it was at that precise moment that I realised that I was really a bit over going to work.

Every Monday morning I would sit at my desk and feel slightly overwhelmed at the big “to do” list in front of me, especially since many of the tasks seemed to be the same things that I’d been doing for the last few years, with very little impact.

I started to realise that perhaps I was just going around in circles, preaching the same sermon about the need to simplify projects, systems and services to a mostly deaf audience.

No matter how many times I tried to say that we were making things too complicated, it seemed that there was a strong desire for wordy inaccessible documents and for reports so obscure and protracted that only the most enthusiastic reader would ever make it to the end.

Making things simple and understandable has been my whole life’s work and in reality, it’s been a failure. People like things to be complicated. It looks impressive. It makes you seem smart.

It’s bad for the community, but really, who cares? Apart from the community of course.

Recently, my friend Sue sent me a link to the new strategic plan for our local Council. She had bravely tried to read it (and make sense of it) and was despairing about the poor writing, overuse of trendy meaningless terms and general inaccessibility of the document. It was obvious that although the stated purpose of releasing the draft document was to encourage “community consultation” it was written in a way that clearly prevented this.

We had an interesting conversation about whether these documents are written with the intention of being deliberately obscure, or whether the tendency to write like this is driven by ignorance, or just people thinking that this is what you are supposed to do. A combination of one or all of these I suspect.

My friend highlighted the extensive use of ‘weasel words’ (words that people use when they are trying to avoid telling the truth) and also sent me a link to the awesome bullshit generator which I love for its awfulness.

The tool is designed to generate bullshit for your next meeting, proposal or interview with your boss. You press the button and out comes a stream of unintelligible, meaningless phrases that sound oh so impressive but mean absolutely nothing. What’s really alarming is that I’ve actually seen some of these phrases used quite recently.

I know that writing is hard for many people. The rules of grammar are sometimes confusing and inconsistent, and many people feel daunted by the prospect of writing long documents.

But there’s one thing that you can do to improve your writing straight away.

Don’t try to sound impressive, just try to be clear.

Don’t fuss about your writing style. Don’t try to sound smart. Just say what you want to say.

Often when people write very wordy documents, I ask them to tell me (out loud) what they are trying to say. Unsurprisingly, they are often able to articulate that very clearly. Then I say, just write that down. What you just said was clear and concise, so just say that. It’s easier than you think.

10 thoughts on “One thing you can do to improve your writing

  1. I’m “opening up” about my experience with buzz words. When I was still in education, we once had a (highly paid) presenter who spoke in jargon. One of our younger staff members had produced a buzz word bingo sheet. Participants looked at each other meaningfully whenever she uttered the inevitable buzz word. No-one paid any attention to her delivery or her poorly produced (with numerous spelling errors) handout. Poor woman; she probably wondered why everyone was grinning at each other whenever she said pedagogy.

    1. I find buzz words very distracting. All of my colleagues are aware of my strong views on jargon and busy slides and will often turn around and stare meaningfully at me in the middle of presentations when they see particularly awful slides. It’s a bit embarrassing but also quite funny.

      1. All too true Marg. I laugh to myself when a person uses a word which they just know I will not know the meaning of then in the same sentence, without taking a breath explain the meaning. I’ve even seen this on TV. Why not just speak to one’s audience? 2 of many words im sick of hearing recently is ‘unprecedented’ ( first used in 1641) and novel. Isn’t novel a type of book??? Love reading you’re thoughts Marg.

      2. Oh yes, I am thoroughly sick of ‘unprecedented’. There are very few things that are truly unprecedented or novel.
        I’m not sure why people use words that they know most people won’t understand. They probably think they sound intelligent.

      1. That’s interesting….I prefer cappuccino’s with less foam, too….so what I end up getting is a latte instead. Sometimes I like the powdered chocolate on top too. It’s possible we have flat whites here, though, because I don’t keep up with these coffee drink names very well…

    1. I don’t have anything against descriptive phrases or poetry. I love reading books or articles that are beautifully written. My issue is when people are deliberately being unclear so that they won’t be called to account, or people who just think that stuffy writing (full of passive voice and big meaningless words) is what’s required.

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