‘The most readable argument’

BookCoverMore than half of the documents we are commissioned to edit and enhance are directed at board directors and senior business executives: CEOs, CFOs, CIOs, CMOs.  These are people who make the decisions that ultimately enable their organisations to succeed or fail.  They are also people who have 101 other documents clamouring for their attention.

Many years ago, my then-boss briefed me to write a doco aimed at convincing the head of a brewery to consolidate twelve of the brewery’s most successful outlets under the same brand name.

‘Apart from what’s in the notes, what else do I need to know?’ I asked.

‘That the guy who is going to make the call is going to get another ten, maybe 20 props on the day ours arrives.  And he is going to have time to read perhaps two or three of them.  Having the best argument is important; but having the most readable argument is even more important.’

I was reminded of this conversation the other day when I received a ‘pack’ from the guys who insure our motor vehicles.  The first three pages covered … I know not what.  I started reading but then fell asleep.  It was not until page four that we go down to what was covered and what they intended to charge.  All of that could so easily have been on page one.  As it is, I still haven’t got around to reading the last couple of pages – which will, presumably, tell us what we need to do next.

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Make it easy for the reader

olivetti portableWay, way back, I had the opportunity to work with a writer who was seriously under-rated.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t known.  He was a high-profile man-about-town: the star of many a party; the host of many a fine lunch.  He just wasn’t recognised for his writing.  And yet he wrote some of the most sublimely readable prose.

To be honest, when I first started working with him, I was a bit in awe of him.  If he said: ‘Are you sure this is the most elegant way of expressing this idea?’ I immediately assumed that it wasn’t.  And generally rewrote it.

But, as I got to know him better, I took his ‘challenges’ as invitations to a discussion.  One day (I seem to recall that it was after a couple of glasses of wine), I asked him if he had a guiding principle when it came to writing.

I remember him looking up at the ceiling; and then down at the table; and then back up at the ceiling; and, finally, his sparkling blue eyes engaged my neither-sparkling-nor-blue eyes.

‘Personally,’ he said, ‘I always try and make it as easy as possible for the reader to read.  If the reader doesn’t read it, what’s the point of writing it?’

It was a relatively short conversation, but it changed the whole way I went about my work.  Cheers, Mars.

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Recommended holiday reading

Mind the GaffeShortly before she died, a writer friend gave me a copy of R L Trask’s Mind the Gaffe: The Penguin Guide to Common Errors in English.

‘I think that you and Larry will get on very well,’ my friend said.

‘Oh?  Why is that?’

‘Well, even though he’s an academic, when it comes to written English he seems to have a strong dislike of both empty waffle and starchy pomposity.’

Mind the Gaffe is intended as a reference book.  The entries are arranged alphabetically, starting with a guide to when to use a and when to use an, and continuing on for another 293 pages until it arrives at a note on words ending in -yse (British English) and words ending in -yze (American English).

For the past twelve or so years, this handy blue-covered volume has sat on my desk, along with The Concise Oxford Dictionary and The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage.  And seldom does a week pass without me dipping into it for clarification of some point or other.  What is the difference between dissent and dissension?  When is it preferable to use lengthy rather than long?  And what is the currently preferred spelling of yogurt/yoghurt/yoghourt?  (According to Professor Trask, it’s yogurt.)

This summer, Mind the Gaffe has also been one of my most satisfying holiday reads.  Over a couple of days, I read it from cover to cover (accompanied by the occasional glass of chilled rosé).  I can thoroughly recommend it.

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If at first you don’t succeed, start again

wastebasketNot everything you write is worth your reader’s reading.

Most writers, having toiled over a piece of prose, are reluctant to admit that, sometimes, what they have written is simply not good enough.  Perhaps it doesn’t say what they need it to say.  Or perhaps it doesn’t say it very clearly or concisely.

But the writer has already invested time and effort in this piece of sub-standard communication.  She has written it; she has reviewed it; she has tweaked it (often several times); and now time is running out.  The deadline that had once seemed comfortably distant is now scarily close.

What to do?

In my experience there are only two things worth trying.  The first is to get someone who hasn’t been involved in the writing or tweaking to review it.  Sometime a fresh pair of eyes will be able to quickly spot what’s right and what’s wrong.  And, hopefully, what’s wrong can be quickly put right.

The second option is to start again with a clean sheet of paper.  Unfortunately, many writers are reluctant to consider this second option.  But, in my experience, the sooner you start again the better.  And it does need to be a clean sheet of paper.  Don’t try and work over the old version.  Don’t try to save what you thought were ‘the good bits’.  That’ll just take you back into the unsuccessful past.

Sometimes, as Isaac Bashevis Singer once observed: ‘the wastebasket is a writer’s best friend.’

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Polished wibble

AcademiaI have spent my working life in the communication business.

I have written for print media.  I have written for radio.  I have written for film and TV.  And, for a good part of the past 20 years, I have written (or edited) reports designed to inform or influence decision-makers.

In the early days, the people with whom I worked were often marketers or market researchers.  Latterly, I seem to have worked with more and more academics.

The marketers were often one step away from being snake oil salesmen.  As one of my former clients was wont to say: ‘It’s all about promise writ large.  Forget the sausage.  A sausage is just a sausage.  Sell the sizzle.’

And the market researchers were often unhelpfully cautious.  On the one hand this; on the other hand that.  ‘Oh, I would so like to meet a one-handed market researcher,’ a client once told me.

But the shortcomings of both the marketers and the market researchers pale in comparison with those of many academics.  The marketers may often have overstated their case.  And the market researchers may sometimes have been reluctant to get off the fence.  But at least they generally said what they said reasonably clearly.  Too many academics employ several thousand words – many of them long, esoteric words – to say, well, who knows what?

As one of my colleagues observed, the language of academia is often ‘polished wibble.  It looks impressive.  But it says very little.’

He also observed that many general readers think that if they can’t understand what an academic has written it must be because they are not brainy enough.  But that’s seldom true.  If the general reader can’t understand what the academic has written, it is probably because the academic has not written it very well.

More than 50 years ago, Rudolf Flesch devised a Reading Ease formula.  (You will find it included in many word processing programs.)  A score of 60 or more suggests writing that most general readers will easily understand.

But the majority of academic writing that has crossed my desk over the past couple of years has struggled to score 20.  One memorable piece scored a miserable 2.3.  That’s not effective communication.  That’s just wibble.

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The advantage of getting it down on paper

write it downA year or two back, we were approached by a fast-talking (literally) businessman with a bunch of almost totally unrelated ideas and sentences that he wanted us to assemble into ‘a key document’.

‘What’s the key message of this key document?’ we asked.

‘The key message?’

‘Yes.  What do you want the reader to take away?’

‘What I’ve just told you,’ he said.  ‘Oh, and there are a couple of diagrams that you need to include.  They’re really important.  I’ll email them.’

The more that we thought about his ‘notes’ and ‘thoughts’, the more clear it became that he really had no idea of what he wanted to say.  He had some glib phrases and some almost-impressive sound bites.  But he had no real message.  He had no clear objective.

He had given us 30 or so plausible-sounding sentences.  But, taken as a whole, they didn’t say anything that made sense.  Tossed off at a dinner party, some of them may have sounded vaguely interesting.  A couple may even have sounded slightly impressive.  But, written down, they added up to ‘So what?’

And that’s why writing it down can be so useful.

As the American cartoonist and commentator Dick Guindon once said: ‘Writing is nature’s way of letting you know how sloppy your thinking is.’

If you think you have a great idea – or something important to say – write it down, carefully, in the simplest language that you can muster.  And then put it aside for an hour or a day before reading it back.  Does it in fact say what you want it to say?  Does it say something worthy of your reader’s attention?

Unfortunately, not everything that trips off the tongue says something worth saying.

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Speak your truth quietly and clearly

desiderataBack in my student days, it seemed that almost every one of my contemporaries owned a copy of Desiderata.  It was usually displayed in poster form – alongside the mandatory posters of Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, and Che Guevara.

More often than not, the poem was credited to Anonymous and was described as having been found in an old church – sometimes named as Old St Paul’s – in 1692.  In fact the poem was written much later.  In 1927.  By a chap named Max Ehrmann.  But why let a few facts get in the way of a good story?

With a particularly acrimonious election campaign now underway, I recently found myself recalling snatches of Desiderata.  In particular, I found myself recalling the part that advises:

‘Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.’

Also, the further suggestion:

‘Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.’

What is it about politics that makes so many people – politicians, journalists, and entrenched supporters of one side or the other (but, regrettably, mainly from the left) – feel that they need to shout?  What is it that makes them feel that they need to be loud and aggressive?

Trust me: if you have something worth saying, you may speak your truth quietly and clearly and I will be only too happy to listen.  But if you persist in shouting, I will simply attend to more measured voices.

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For whom are you writing?

ZinsserMany years ago, when I worked in advertising, it used to be said that there were three legs to the successful copywriting stool.

The first was: Who are you writing for?  The second was: What is the single most important thing you have to tell this person?  And the third was: Why should they believe you?

Get one of those things wrong (we were told) and the stool would fall over.

I remember the ad agencies – especially the bigger ones – spending a lot of time and effort defining the target audience.  Who was this person?  How old were they?  Where did they live?  Where had they gone to school?  Where did they shop?  What did they buy?  What did they believe?

And then later, when I started writing for magazines, I remember the editor of a sailing magazine telling me that the magazine’s typical reader was ‘a sea dreamer’: someone who loved the idea of offshore cruising – even though they would probably never get to sail out of sight of land.

The editor of a business magazine told me that his magazine’s typical reader was a mid-level manager looking for a fast track to the top.  ‘They don’t want to be told that it’s a long road to a C-level job.  They want a story with a moral, and a few buzzwords that they can trot out tomorrow.’

And so, for 20 years or so, I tried to write what I thought the reader wanted to read.  Sometimes, the feedback suggested that I got it spot on.  At other times, the lack of feedback suggested that perhaps I didn’t.

And then I read William Zinsser’s classic guide to writing nonfiction, On Writing Well.

In Chapter 5, The Audience, Mr Zinsser convinced me that, even with the best will in the world, you can’t really second guess the reader – or even the editor.  And, in his opinion, the best strategy is always to write for yourself.  If your reader likes what you have to say – and how you say it – you’ve achieved your objective.  And, as Mr Zinsser so cheerfully puts it: ‘If you lose the dullards back in the dust, you don’t want them anyway.’

If you’re still reading at this point, then you know that Mr Zinsser was not altogether wrong.  And if you’ve already stopped reading … well, what can I say?

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Quelle surprise!

ProduceMany years ago, I wrote what I thought was a pretty polished piece about the opening of a new hardware store.  I handed my copy into my editor and, 15 minutes later, she was standing by my desk.

‘I read the first couple of sentences,’ she said, ‘and I knew exactly what was coming next.’

‘Is that good?’ I asked.

She shook her head.  ‘What you’ve written is “dog bites postman”.  Readers want to be surprised, informed, entertained.  They want to read about the postman who bites a dog.’

I was about to protest that my piece had nothing to do with dogs or postmen, but I could see what she meant.  My report was predictable and it was heavy with clichés.

Christine has long-since retired.  But some of her successors would do well to remember that readers still want to be surprised, informed, and entertained.

Here’s the opening of a piece I came across earlier today.  It started by saying that a certain person ‘is passionate about healthy and delicious food that is quick, simple and easy to prepare.’

She is a cook, for goodness sake.  A celebrity cook.  She’s trying to sell cookbooks and attract viewers to her TV show.  Of course she’s passionate about healthy and delicious food.

We are then invited to ‘Follow her as she takes off on a culinary journey … celebrating the abundance of fine food along the way.’

Cliché upon cliché.

Finally we are told that this celebrity cook ‘will put to use the best local ingredients she can find to create her own delicious dishes which are guaranteed to make your mouth water!’

Well, we certainly don’t expect her to be using the worst local ingredients she can find.  And make my mouth water?  Hmm, perhaps.  But isn’t that up to me to decide – even without the unnecessary exclamation point?

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Memo: Re those emails

MemoI began my working life during the era of the memorandum.  Back then, memos came in many flavours.  Some were written to inform the reader; but, as Dean Acheson famously quipped, many many more were written simply to protect the writer.

And don’t think that just because they were laborious to produce – drafting, typing, amending, adjusting, retyping (often more than once), and then delivering them by hand or by snail-mail – that they were few and far between.  Despite many of them having little relevance to the recipient, they tumbled into our physical inboxes almost as frequently as emails now tumble into our virtual inboxes.  How often they got read … well, that’s another matter.

But there were exceptions.

For a while, I worked for an organisation headed by a man whose memos had an almost poetic quality to them.  They were generally quite short – a paragraph or two at most – beautifully crafted, and, like any good poem, they were almost always rewarding to read.

After three or four years, our paths diverged: I moved off to another organisation, and, soon after, the chairman-poet moved into semi-retirement.  But then, a few years later, I ran into him – quite by accident – and we ended up having a meal together.

During the course of the meal, I told him how much I had admired his memos.  Was there a secret?  I asked.

He confessed that it often took him as long as 20 minutes or half an hour to compose one of his compact communiques.  But he consoled himself with the knowledge that if he dashed something off in three or four minutes, and then nobody read it, that was three or four minutes totally wasted.

He also said that he tried to never use a word or phrase in a memo that he wouldn’t be comfortable using in a casual face-to-face conversation.  ‘I’m just not a “moreover” kind of bloke.  And I think if I was to use “moreover” in a memo, the reader would think that either a) I hadn’t written it, or b) I was being pompous.  Neither of which would help my cause.’  He was answering my question rather than offering advice; but I took it as advice anyway.

Emails have, of course, taken over from memos.  But I think the same rules apply.

A friend of mine is famous for her emails.  I’m sure that many people think that she just pumps them out.  But I have seen her at work.  She really toils over them.  As she says, the test is not of what she puts in, but of what the reader takes out

Are you someone who would say ‘moreover’ in the course of a pub conversation?  If the answer is no, then maybe you shouldn’t use such words in your writing either.  And next time you are tempted to rattle out an email in three or four minutes, remember, if your reader doesn’t take out what you wanted them to take out, you have wasted those three or four minutes – and possibly a whole lot more.

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