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From the FT to Hemingway: Thoughts on Writing

Here at the Critical Conversations blog, we take writing seriously. We have former journalists on the team whose daily aim is to write clearly and succinctly. When time-pressed colleagues are a bit wordy or unclear (sometimes they are writing in their second or third language), we edit their work before publishing it. And they usually thank us for helping them express their ideas more clearly. Every writer needs an editor.

That is why we were so interested in a recent column about the ills of jargon and marketing speak by The Financial Times’ Lucy Kellaway. (Full disclosure: Our CEO, Olivier Fleurot, is the former CEO of the The Financial Times Group.)

In her October 23 article, Lucy used “meaninglessly,” “moronically,” “management bullshit” and “linguistic crimes” to describe several pieces of business writing.

Her article has struck a nerve here at the blog. And in conversations around the “water cooler,” one French colleague recalled the words of 17th-century writer Nicolas Boileau:

Avant donc que d’écrire, apprenez à penser. Ce que l’on conçoit bien s’énonce clairement.

English translation: “Before writing, learn to think. What one understands, one expresses clearly.”

Lucy’s article serves as a poignant reminder to follow the mother of all writing rules: Keep it simple.

Would Uncle Jimmy Understand?

Inspired by Lucy, we decided to check out what other people and organizations say about the matter.

The Plain Language website published by the US Federal Government describes jargon as: “unnecessarily complicated, technical language used to impress, rather than to inform, your audience.”

The website, which aims to improve communication between the government and the public, advises:

“When we say not to use jargon, we’re not advocating leaving out necessary technical terms, but we are saying to make sure your other language is as clear as possible…Special terms can be useful shorthand within a group and may be the clearest way to communicate inside the group. However, going beyond necessary technical terms to write in jargon can cause misunderstanding or alienation, even if your only readers are specialists.”

Arizona State University tells its professors to keep the big terms to themselves, advising: “If the source can’t come up with a good explanation in lay terms, rely on your dictionary and reputable online sources to explain the concept/issue. Can you explain it to your mother, grandmother or uncle Jimmy?”

And down under, Australian writer and marketer Megan Hills says she knows of a web developer who alienates his clients by relying on jargon.  In a blog post, she wrote:

“…if you are using specific industry words or phases when speaking to a client who isn’t in the same industry as you, their eyes may glaze over or their brow might furrow. Quite possibly they will be walking away, ready to give their business to someone who cares enough to communicate with them properly.”

Ernest Hemingway

But a post on clear writing would not be complete without Ernest Hemingway. Admired for his use of declarative sentences and omission of unnecessary detail, Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954 for Old Man and the Sea.

In Death in the Afternoon (1932), Hemingway described his minimalist approach to writing, now called the Iceberg Theory: “If a writer of prose knows about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows…The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

Olivier, a former engineer, actually thinks it is more like one-ninth. The technical debate aside, Hemingway’s works were often short because he had the  desire to focus on characters’ actions not reflections, and the skill to identify exactly the right words to convey an idea.Writer John McDonnell notes that “Hemingway revised his stories rigorously, making them tighter and yet more suggestive with each revision.”

Now that is a lesson that every press release writer and blogger should follow.





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