On Writing Well

This morning I got to the “Business Writing: Writing in Your Job” chapter in the “On Writing Well” book by William Zinsser. I found many things I wanted to write down and share, but instead of retelling it I thought I will just quote a good chunk of it and let you enjoy the original. It’s pretty long for a blog article, but it’s an easy and pleasant reading. I’ll start with the second paragraph since I think it goes straight to the point. Here it goes.

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Although this is a book about writing, it’s not just for writers. Its principles apply to everyone who is expected to do some writing as part of his or her daily employment. The memo, the business letter, the administrative report, the financial analysis, the marketing proposal, the note to the boss, the fax, the e-mail, the Post-it—all the pieces of paper that circulate through your office every day are forms of writing. Take them seriously. Countless careers rise or fall on the ability or the inability of employees to state a set of facts, summarize a meeting or present an idea coherently.

Most people work for institutions: businesses, banks, insurance firms, law firms, government agencies, school systems, non-profit organizations and other entities. Many of those people are managers whose writing goes out to the public: the president addressing the stockholders, the banker explaining a change in procedure, the school principal writing a newsletter to parents. Whoever they are, they tend to be so afraid of writing that their sentences lack all humanity—and so do their institutions. It’s hard to imagine that these are real places where real men and women come to work every morning.

But just because people work for an institution, they don’t have to write like one. Institutions can be warmed up. Administrators can be turned into human beings. Information can be imparted clearly and without pomposity. You only have to remember that readers identify with people, not with abstractions like “profitability,” or with Latinate nouns like “utilization” and “implementation,” or with inert constructions in which nobody can be visualized doing something: “pre-feasibility studies are in the paperwork stage.”

Nobody has made the point better than George Orwell in his translation into modern bureaucratic fuzz of this famous verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Orwell’s version goes:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

First notice how the two passages look. The first one at the top invites us to read it. The words are short and have air around them; they convey the rhythms of human speech. The second one is clotted with long words. It tells us instantly that a ponderous mind is at work. We don’t want to go anywhere with a mind that expresses itself in such suffocating language. We don’t even start to read.

Also notice what the two passages say. Gone from the second one are the short words and vivid images of everyday life—the race and the battle, the bread and the riches—and in their place have waddled the long and flabby nouns of generalized meaning. Gone is any sense of what one person did (“I returned”) or what he realized (“saw”) about one of life’s central mysteries: the capriciousness of fate.

Let me illustrate how this disease infects the writing that most people do in their jobs. I’ll use school principals as my first example, not because they are the worst offenders (they aren’t) but because I happen to have such an example. My points, however, are intended for all the men and women who work in all the organizations where language has lost its humanity and nobody knows what the people in charge are talking about.

My encounter with the principals began when I got a call from Ernest B. Fleishman, superintendent of schools in Greenwich, Connecticut. “We’d like you to come and ‘dejargonize’ us,” he said. “We don’t think we can teach students to write unless all of us at the top of the school system clean up our own writing.” He said he would send me some typical materials that had originated within the system. His idea was for me to analyze the writing and then conduct a workshop.

What appealed to me was the willingness of Dr. Fleishman and his colleagues to make themselves vulnerable; vulnerability has a strength of its own. We decided on a date, and soon a fat envelope arrived. It contained various internal memos and mimeographed newsletters that had been mailed to parents from the town’s 16 elementary, junior and senior high schools.

The newsletters had a cheery and informal look. Obviously the system was making an effort to communicate warmly with its families. But even at first glance certain chilly phrases caught my eye (“prioritized evaluative procedures,” “modified departmentalized schedule”), and one principal promised that his school would provide “enhanced positive learning environments.” Just as obviously the system wasn’t communicating as warmly as it thought it was.

I studied the principals’ material and divided it into good and bad examples. On the appointed morning in Greenwich I found 40 principals and curriculum coordinators assembled and eager to learn. I told them I could only applaud them for submitting to a process that so threatened their identity. In the national clamor over why Johnny can’t write, Dr. Fleishman was the first adult in my experience who admitted that youth has no monopoly on verbal sludge.

I told the principals that we want to think of the men and women who run our children’s schools as people not unlike ourselves. We are suspicious of pretentiousness, of all the fad words that the social scientists have coined to avoid making themselves clear to ordinary mortals. I urged them to be natural. How we write and how we talk is how we define ourselves.

I asked them to listen to how they were defining themselves to the community. I had made copies of certain bad examples, changing the names of the schools and the principals. I explained that I would read some of the examples aloud. Later we would see if they could turn what they had written into plain English. This was my first example:

Dear Parent:

We have established a special phone communication system to provide additional opportunities for parent input. During this year we will give added emphasis to the goal of communication and utilize a variety of means to accomplish this goal. Your inputs, from the unique position as a parent, will help us to plan and implement an educational plan that meets the needs of your child. An open dialogue, feedback and sharing of information between parents and teachers will enable us to work with your child in the most effective manner.

DR. GEORGE B. JONES
Principal

That’s the kind of communication I don’t want to receive, unique though my parent inputs might be. I want to be told that the school is going to make it easier for me to telephone the teachers and that they hope I’ll call often to discuss how my children are getting along. Instead the parent gets junk: “special phone communication system,” “added emphasis to the goal of communication,” “plan and implement an educational plan.” As for “open dialogue, feedback and sharing of information,” they are three ways of saying the same thing.

Dr. Jones is clearly a man who means well, and his plan is one we all want: a chance to pick up the phone and tell the principal what a great kid Johnny is despite that unfortunate incident in the playground last Tuesday. But Dr. Jones doesn’t sound like a person I want to call. In fact, he doesn’t sound like a person. His message could have been tapped out by a computer. He is squandering a rich resource: himself.

Another example I chose was a “Principal’s Greeting” sent to parents at the start of the school year. It consisted of two paragraphs that were very different:

Fundamentally, Foster is a good school. Pupils who require help in certain subjects or study skills areas are receiving special attention. In the school year ahead we seek to provide enhanced positive learning environments. Children, and staff, must work in an atmosphere that is conducive to learning. Wide varieties of instructional materials are needed. Careful attention to individual abilities and learning styles is required. Cooperation between school and home is extremely important to the learning process. All of us should be aware of desired educational objectives for every child.

Keep informed about what is planned for our children this year and let us know about your own questions and about any special needs your child may have. I have met many of you in the first few weeks. Please continue to stop in to introduce yourself or to talk about Foster. I look forward to a very productive year for all of us.

DR. RAY B. DAWSON
Principal

In the second paragraph I’m being greeted by a person; in the first I’m hearing from an educator. I like the real Dr. Dawson of Paragraph 2. He talks in warm and comfortable phrases: “Keep informed,” “let us know,” “I have met,” “Please continue,” “I look forward.”

By contrast, Educator Dawson of Paragraph 1 never uses “I” or even suggests a sense of “I.” He falls back on the jargon of his profession, where he feels safe, not stopping to notice that he really isn’t telling the parent anything. What are “study skills areas,” and how do they differ from “subjects”? What are “enhanced positive learning environments,” and how do they differ from “an atmosphere that is conducive to learning”? What are “wide varieties of instructional materials”: pencils, textbooks, filmstrips? What exactly are “learning styles”? What “educational objectives” are “desired”?

The second paragraph, in short, is warm and personal; the other is pedantic and vague. That was a pattern I found repeatedly. Whenever the principals wrote to notify the parents of some human detail, they wrote with humanity:

It seems that traffic is beginning to pile up again in front of the school. If you can possibly do so, please come to the rear of the school for your child at the end of the day.

I would appreciate it if you would speak with your children about their behavior in the cafeteria. Many of you would be totally dismayed if you could observe the manners of your children while they are eating. Check occasionally to see if they owe money for lunch. Sometimes children are very slow in repaying.

But when the educators wrote to explain how they proposed to do their educating, they vanished without a trace:

In this document you will find the program goals and objectives that have been identified and prioritized. Evaluative procedures for the objectives were also established based on acceptable criteria.

Prior to the implementation of the above practice, students were given very little exposure to multiple choice questions. It is felt that the use of practice questions correlated to the unit that a student is presently studying has had an extremely positive effect as the test scores confirm.

After I had read various good and bad examples, the principals began to hear the difference between their true selves and their educator selves. The problem was how to close the gap. I recited my four articles of faith: clarity, simplicity, brevity and humanity. I explained about using active verbs and avoiding “concept nouns.” I told them not to use the special vocabulary of education as a crutch; almost any subject can be made accessible in good English.

These were all basic tenets, but the principals wrote them down as if they had never heard them before—and maybe they hadn’t, or at least not for many years. Perhaps that’s why bureaucratic prose becomes so turgid, whatever the bureaucracy. Once an administrator rises to a certain level, nobody ever points out to him again the beauty of a simple declarative sentence, or shows him how his writing has become swollen with pompous generalizations.

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