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.

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