Remarks on the State of Clear Writing

I was honored to give the keynote speech at the 2018 ClearMark Awards dinner, an event sponsored by the Center for Plain Language honoring clear writing. Below are my remarks as written (and more or less mostly as given).

Thank you for inviting me to join you at this important event, and congratulations to tonight’s honorees. Apropos of the occasion I will keep my remarks short, but as proof that more work needs to be done they will still likely be too long.

I was asked to give a bit of an historical perspective and speculate about the future of plain, clear, writing. Before diving in, I should note that I have seen, and committed, a lot of bad writing. I have spent a career in politics, government, and academia. None of which are known for their precise and clear prose. A key difference among the three is that in politics you try to use as many words as possible to say as little as possible and ideally mean even less, in government you try to use as few words as possible to cover every possible objection and account for every possible fear of every possible person above you on the food chain. As a professor I read of academics who are trained to believe that the more words and footnotes the better the idea, and I spend a lot of my time explaining to students that if they can end a sentence with “by zombies” and they are not in fact writing about zombies, then they are writing in the passive voice.

With this in mind, I offer bad news, worse news, slightly less worse news, and then suggest how and why it will all be fine in the end.

First the bad news. As one commentator noted, “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.” He went on to say that “in our time, it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing.” Some may recognize the jabs as George Orwell’s in his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language. The bad news is that the problem of poor writing is old and hasn’t been solved. The worse news is that complaints about flowery and pointless language date back at least to Socrates who called “conciseness of speech” a “very rare thing.”

Even rants against social media aren’t new. Orwell’s comments on the pamphleteers of revolutionary America — think an incredibly inefficient Instagram — ring true today:

The pamphlet…is a one-man show. One has complete freedom of expression, including, if one chooses, the freedom to be scurrilous, abusive, and seditious; or, on the other hand, to be more detailed, serious and “high-brow” than is ever possible in a newspaper or in most kinds of periodicals. At the same time, since the pamphlet is always short and unbound, it can be produced much more quickly than a book, and in principle, at any rate, can reach a bigger public. Above all, the pamphlet does not have to follow any prescribed pattern. It can be in prose or in verse, it can consist largely of maps or statistics or quotations, it can take the form of a story, a fable, a letter, an essay, a dialogue, or a piece of ‘reportage.’ All that is required of it is that it shall be topical, polemical, and short. (Quoted in Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn, Harvard University Press, 1967)

Now the slightly less worse, potentially even good or at least goodish news. C3PO, a character from the future from my past once whined “we’re doomed.” But like C3PO we may not be doomed yet. This awards event is evidence that people who matter, care. This organization is a demonstration of your collective commitment to proving Orwell wrong. Government writing is better today than it was 10 years ago. Online and mobile media are forcing writers to be more direct. That you are here tonight demonstrates that good communicators are winning.

How do we accelerate progress and get to an imagined future of short sentences that only end with “by zombies” if they are about zombies? There are several things all of you, each of us, can do to keep your momentum going.

First and foremost, remember why you write. Know exactly what you want to convey and to whom you want to convey it. How will the world be different tomorrow because of what you write today? If you do not know exactly who you want to get to do what, your writing will be weak. With that,

My favorite piece of writing advice comes from the noir crime writer Elmore Leonard: “Try to leave out the part readers tend to skip.” He also said that you should never open a book with the weather, which got me thinking about how that would go at federal agencies, “It was a gray day in a gray town. Unlike my suit, the weather fit me. Gray rain was falling. The rain fell in sheets, gray unwashed sheets, sheets that had seen better days. But so had I. So had we all. Into this rain washed the Department of Transportation 14 CFR Part 252 Docket No. DOT–OST–2011–0044 RIN 2105–AE06 Smoking of Electronic Cigarettes on Aircraft.”

Hemingway apparently never said, “write drunk, edit sober.” The spirit of the advice is good — write carelessly, freely, as if the entire world were possible. Then edit like everything mattered and it hurt. Cut and trim and cut and trim. Be as ruthless in your editing as you are free in your writing. But,

Write as if you are going to be read, not edited. A lot of writing is defensive. Junior staff write anticipating edits of those above them, who edit in anticipation of those further up the food chain. Documents meant to convey meaning to the public are written to convey caution to employers. Don’t write expecting edits, write expecting readers. The edits will come regardless of what you do, so you might as well do your best. The corollary is to edit as if the writing will be read, not edited again. Write and edit with your reader in mind, not your boss or your lawyer.

Say simply simply what you want to say. Here it helps to recall a conversation between Milo and Tock in the classic children’s book, The Phantom Tollbooth — “I never knew words could be so confusing,” Milo said….. “Only when you use a lot to say a little,” answered Tock.

That means you need to know who your reader is, and what they need to hear to get them to do what you want them to do. You are not your reader. Persuasion is about the person being persuaded, not the persuader. Write for real people who do real things in the real world. A terrific example of this is the “Food Plate” developed by the Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Obama. We all grew up with the food pyramid, which is a bit daft because we don’t eat off of pyramids. We eat off of plates. The new chart says “this is what a healthy plate looks like, do this.” The old chart said “This is a pyramid, you probably read about those in school, the famous ones are in Egypt where they found King Tut (funky Tut), now imagine if this food were on your round plate and not King Tuts grave, do that.” Daft.

Read more fiction. That means reading less political and trade stuff. Fiction tends to be better written, it will help you think more creatively, and it’s more interesting. Read Hemingway’s “A Clean Well Lighted Place.” Read Leonard. Read Fitzgerald and Dos Passos — and if you can write like Fitzgerald and Dos Passos for heavens sakes quit your job and write, they were astonishing. If you can’t write like them, don’t try at work. But really, if you can, put a cookie in your pocket and go home and write.

All we have is how we talk to each other. As such how we talk to each other matters. You know that, and you care about that. That’s why you’re here. Keep it up. Keep talking to each other, not at each other. Listen and respond, don’t rant and berate. Keep writing to be understood, not to avoid having to stay late on a Thursday when you’re trying to beat Bay Bridge traffic and the rain is coming down, a gray rain falling in sheets, gray sheets that have seen better days.

Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose ideas are the foundations for much of our democracy, once criticized “long discourses” and preferred “mute eloquence.” I will finally take Rousseau’s advice and stop talking.

Enjoy dinner.

For insights on what soccer can teach managers and organizations check out my upcoming book, Soccer Thinking for Management Success: Lessons for organizations from the world’s game due out July 27th.

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