On Writing Clearly

There is a time and a place for the much maligned passive voice. It does have an important role to play – as a technical writer, I am often called upon to use it, and there are uses for which it is superior to active voice.

And then there’s the kind of crappy business speak that all of our managers and too many of our politicians and even our athletes tend to use these days. Language that uses many words in order to avoid dealing with some vital thing that the speaker or writer wishes to avoid. This thing has many faces, but perhaps the common is that of Responsibility.

I was reading “The Braindead Megaphone” by George Saunders recently, and I came across a passage in that clarifies this with brutal elegance:

A petty bureaucrat writes to his superior: ‘The lighting must be better protected than now. Lights could be eliminated, since they apparently are never used. However, it has been observed that when the doors are shut, the load always presses hard against them as soon as darkness sets in, which makes closing the door difficult. Also, because of the alarming nature of darkness, screaming always occurs when the doors are closed. It would therefore be useful to light the lamp before and during the first moments of the operation.’ The bureaucrat was the ironically named ‘Mr. Just,’ his organization the SS, the year 1942.

What Mr. Just did not write–what he would have written, had he been taking full responsibility for his own prose–is: ‘To more easily kill the Jews, leave the lights on.’ But writing this would have forced him to admit what he was up to. To avoid writing this, what did he have to do? Disown his prose. Pretend his prose was not him. He may have written a more honest version, and tore it up. He may have intuitively, self-protectively, skipped directly to this dishonest, passive-voice version. Either way, he accepted an inauthentic relation to his own prose, and thereby doomed himself to hell.

Working with language is a means by which we can identify the bullshit within ourselves (and others).

And so say we all.

Going Forwards

It’s hard to think of two words in the English language that are used more pointlessly and stupidly than the current business jargon favourite “Going Forwards”.

Now, don’t get me wrong – it does have legitimate uses. It’s perfectly reasonable to say “the train was moving forward”, for example. It’s when these two words are used as a phrase unto themselves that the trouble starts.

Going Forwards – sometimes moving instead of going, or forward instead of forwards – has become the go to phrase to add at the end of any sentence, showing serious danger of making the full stop or period obselete. The irritation of its ubiquity is only increased by the fact that it’s almost always used redundantly in any case.

This is never more true than when it’s used inside a sentence (displacing a comma). Most of its terminating uses are redundant, but all of its internal uses are. They inevitably take the form of “in the future, going forwards,” or some close cognate.

Gentlehumans of all genders, I implore you to try to avoid this weed in the garden of words. It doesn’t make you sound more professional or more authoritative. It makes you sound like you need to take a breath but are afraid to stop talking.

Learning from Poetry

If you’re a professional communicator, you probably don’t think that highly of modern poets. That’s because the modern image of the poet is of the stereotypical Beat poet – a drug-addled narcissist wandering vaguely through the English language in search of a point. The Beat poets, as a group, were less disciplined in many ways than their predecessors – although one might well argue that they were disciplined, but in different ways.

That’s not the sort of poetry that I’m talking about. I’m talking about poetry that requires discipline, usually manifested as a strict adherence to form. Most of the classical forms of poetry have very strict rules of one kind or another. A sestina, for example, must feature six stanzas each of six lines, and furthermore, the same six words must be used as the end of each line, but never in the same order from one stanza to the next. A limerick must have five lines, with the first, second and fifth all rhyming, and the third and fourth having a different rhyme, while the first four lines should have the same number of syllables. And then there are haiku.

There are various styles of haiku, but what they have in common is that they are absolute models of ruthless efficiency in communication.

And that is the lesson that poetry can teach us about communicating. In poetry, no word is chosen by chance – a combination of meaning, metre and rhyme (although the last is not essential) guides all choices of wording. Although this approach is sometimes the enemy of clarity in communication, the best poetry transcends this problem.

When done well, poetry can communicate ideas and emotions better than prose ever could – there’s a reason why we have an expression “poetry in motion”, but not “prose in motion”.

Now, this isn’t to say that your every communication should be a villanelle or a flyting – poetry isn’t appropriate for every situation. But the discipline and precision of poetry is almost always appropriate, and can and should be used to benefit the quality of your written and spoken communication.

If you want to know about poetry and poetic forms, I highly recommend Stephen Fry’s excellent book The Ode Less Travelled, which is both an educational and an entertaining read.

Copyright and Copy Rights

There are times when a copyright is the sensible thing to do. When you’ve put a lot of effort, time or money into a production, it only makes sense that you should get a return on your investments. Communication is important, but sometimes – and particularly with entertainment – it takes a back seat to getting paid.

There are other times, however, when the idea is more important. When it matters more that you communicate than that you renumerate. There’s any number of reasons why, but mostly they come down to you wanting to get the idea out there more than wanting to get paid. (Not that getting paid isn’t nice.)

It’s for times like those that Creative Commons and other such organisations exist. They allow you to pick and choose the legal protections you want, rather than the all or nothing options of copyright and public domain.

It’s worth keeping in mind that in the 21st Century, we have a few more options than our predecessors did – and it’s worth using them when they’re the appropriate choice.

Expression in Email

It’s a disarmingly easy to use form – like writing a letter only faster and less formal – but it’s just as easy to go wrong doing it. Here are a few guidelines to smooth over the potentially rough edges of email communication:

  • Make the subject line relevant – Don’t leave your respondent wondering what might be in an email with a subject line like “Hi”. Especially in business, make sure that the subject line is concise and gives an indication of what the topic of the email that follows will be.
  • Don’t use “Re:” in a subject line unless it is a reply – Never start a new email conversation with a subject that begins with “Re:”. Certainly, at times it may seem appropriate, but the usage of that prefix to indicate replies is so wide that we don’t even notice it anymore. If you feel that you absolutely must use it in a subject line, consider using a synonym instead, such as “Concerning”, “About” or even “Regarding”.
  • Only use a time-dependent greeting when you’re sure what time the email will be read – If you’re in Australia, emailing someone in America at 9AM your time, Good Morning may seem appropriate as a greeting – but consider that it will most likely be night time there when the email arrives a few minutes later. Instead, use a greeting or salutation that does not mention the time of day. For informal emails, “Hello” or “Hi” are both fine (Australians can add “G’day” to that list, too). For more formal emails, the old letter-writing classic of “Dear …” is your best bet.
  • Keep it brief unless invited not to – Email is an immediate medium. You should try to keep messages in it relatively short. If you feel you need more room to explain something, either ask for it and explain in the next exchange, or attach it as a separate document.
  • Keep the formatting simple – as tempting as it may be to include lots of bells and whistles, it’s still simplest and best to rely on the words alone. Plain text is readable in almost every context, while fancy formatting may not translate well between different email apps.
  • In a formal email, do not use emoticons – as tempting as it might be, emoticons have little place in business email. It’s one thing to send a smiley face to your mate, and quite another to send it to your boss.
  • Be aware that email is not that private – Unless you’re deleting every email you send or receive, your emails will be around for a long time. And even if you are deleting them, you can never be sure that your correspondents are, or that your ISP or work IT dept is. A good rule of thumb, albeit a severe one, is never to say anything in email you wouldn’t be comfortable having read into evidence in a court case. It may never come to that, but then again, it may – it’s best to be circumspect. If it’s too sensitive for email, tell it over the phone or in person.

The Humble Phone Box

Remember public phones? You so rarely see them anymore. Every new street directory is more out of date, still marking phones that have since been removed (and, unfortunately, misleading people who desperately need a phone). Which only makes it harder to communicate, dammit!

Part of it is a move towards a society where everyone is carrying their phone with them the whole time – mine’s sitting here next to my computer as I type this, for example – but it’s more than that.

It represents a shift in who is responsible for the infrastructure of communication. Public phones, at least in Australia, were installed by a government agency originally. But mobile phones are not. The towers are installed by and owned by various companies; the phones we use are owned by those same companies or by us.

On one level, this makes us all more responsible for our own means of communication: it’s your job to make sure that your phone doesn’t get lost or stolen, and that it’s charged up and connected. On the plus side, this does mean that we are less at the mercy of vandals than we once were, but at what cost?

We now have less responsibility, and less control over our phone networks. When phones were run by a government agency, that agency was (at least in theory) accountable to us through the government. But companies aren’t accountable to anyone except their shareholders – and how many of us hold any shares in the companies that provide our phone services?

We live in an age of unprecedented connectivity, and thus, unprecedented speed, reach and ease of communication. But we also live in an age where that communication is devalued, not by its availability, but by its lack of accountability.

Unequal Communication

Somewhere in one his novels, the dearly departed American writer Robert Anton Wilson has one character say to another that “Communication is only possible between equals.”

It’s a provocative statement, and although it is not completely accurate, it is accurate enough. Communication, to be successful, must be bi-directional. Both people must be able to make themselves understood and be understood in turn. But this isn’t the case in very many of the interactions we think of as communication. Advertisers think of themselves as communicators, but how interactive is a tv spot or a billboard? They send their message, or so they hope, but they receive no message in return. In fact, they spend a lot of money trying to predict the reaction to their message ahead of time, and even more to find out what it actually was – and in both cases, they do indirectly, because the last thing they want is direct communication with the consumer.

Because when you communicate with someone, directly, as an equal – you’re accountable to them.

Think about it. Your boss is superior to you in power, and a part of that is the power to screen out any communication from you he doesn’t want to hear. He’s not accountable to you, but you are accountable to him. I don’t have to tell you that you can’t communicate with your boss the same way you can communicate with your friends – there’s no equality there to support that.

If you’re in a job interview, the people interviewing you have a litttle bit of power over you – which is one reason why it’s so common to be interviewed by committees. Insecure power craves the reassurance, but it’s almost impossible to communicate with a committee as an equal if you’re there as an individual. (It’s usually impossible to do so if you’re there as part of a different committee, too, but that’s more due to refusal to recognise the power of the other committee than any inequality of power.)

Communication is only possible between equals.

Anything else is either ordering (if you’re the more powerful); or defying, apologising or grovelling (if you’re the less powerful).

I don’t tell you this because I’m cynical. I tell you this because I think communicating as equals is a worthy ideal, and I hope you do too.

Dumbing it Down

I’ve always hated that expression – it’s both patronising and inaccurate, and both those things tend to annoy me.

It’s patronising, because it assumes that a larger vocabulary is a reliable indicator of higher intelligence. In my experience, and I’m pretty sure that most people who’ve been to a university would agree with me on this, it more likely indicates higher education than higher intelligence. And even then, no one actually needs a tertiary education to speak articulately, just basic diction, basic literacy, and the willingness to refer to a dictionary every so often.

So much for patronising. The inaccuracy is actually a bigger problem. And one way you can tell this is that it actually manages to appear twice in only three words. It’s the assumption that to simplify anything is to make it dumber – and that the direction of any simplification is downward, to something of less worth. (Of course, the ‘down’ carries another association as well – ‘down’ after all is where one tends to find the ‘lower’ classes, and the idea of ‘dumbing down’ is essentially a classist one.)

And yet, and yet, and yet…

Hasn’t pretty much the entire history of scientific development been driven by this very same urge to simplify and clarify? Didn’t Isaac Newton improve our understanding of gravity by simplifying the equations that described it? And as complex as calculus can be, it remains simpler than any other method yet developed of reaching the results it generates.

For that matter, didn’t the Good News Bible reach entirely new audiences by simplifying the language the Bible was written in? One can argue that it lacks the poetry of, for example, the King James Bible, but it’s certainly easier to read and understand.

It’s as if clarity were a bad thing. As if being able to understand and to be understood were somehow improper.

Well, it’s not. So don’t let the bastards grind – or dumb – you down!

Communicate, Dammit! – an introduction

At first glance, Communicate, Dammit! probably seems like a pretty odd choice for a blog title – especially one about communication. But there’s a method to this (seeming) madness. Two, in fact.

The first is the simpler one. Communicate, Dammit! is an expression of the frustration that is all too often the result of poor communication. Whether it’s poor spelling or simply unclear expression, poor communication is a problem that we all suffer from. This blog is an attempt to come to grips with that. It’s my intention here to discuss what I think communication is, and how we can all improve it. Not every post here is going to be relevant to every reader, but I hope that even the ones telling you things you already know will not leave you feeling you’ve wasted your time.

The second reason for the name is to make a point. In just two words, the expression Communicate, Dammit! accomplishes a whole lot. It’s a complete sentence, an imperative, an expression of both desire and frustration. But it also, in one sense, delineates the limits at each end of a range of communication.

Communicate is formal and broad. It leaves no room for doubt in what is meant, yet at the same time, it does not specify the nature of the communication, by either its mode or its content. It simply requests a response.

Dammit, on the other hand, is informal to the point of being considered profanity by some people. Even to those who do not regard it as a profanity, it is still at more or less the outer limit of polite words. There are substitutes for it that are both more and less profane, but the choice of this word in particular sends a message all by itself. And while it too specifies neither a mode nor a content for the desired communication, it does serve to emphasise just how devoutly that communication is wished.

So, here we are. I hope you’ll be back next week to read on, and even more, I’d love to get some debate going in the comments of this blog.

See you next week,

PS – Communicate, Dammit!