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Bad Writing Kills

In the wake of 9/11, we’ve scrutinized government memos in the intelligence and defense fields. Memos and reports were written, rewritten, deep-sixed, read, revised, acted upon, ignored, and dismissed. Often a chasm opened between the writer’s intent and the reader’s understanding. People died as a result.

Shortly before the attacks, FBI agent Colleen Rowley pleaded with superiors in Minneapolis to investigate Zacarias Moussaoui, an alleged plotter. By some accounts, authorities didn’t understand her request, which had been revised by intermediaries. Of course. Rare is the direction, or request or idea or finding, that gets across in a bureaucracy. Memos and reports never state a point; they express a political consensus where the original idea has been reworked into the ground and something else entirely—or, preferably, nothing at all—is reported. The same happens in corporate, research and academic circles.

Nothing new there, perhaps. But as a journalist who works part-time in government, research and academic circles, I am surprised by the intransigent forces promoting the fog of words.

Some of the verbal pasteurizing makes sense. Bureaucracies provide continuity and create consensus. They smooth out uncertainties that otherwise bedevil society and the economy. And like the secret password for a children’s tree house, technical terms and redundant usage reassure members of a professional guild that they are up to something important. But none of these groups speak only to themselves. Each talks to the public about health, education, safety, public policy, finance and research. Clarity and common sense count all the more.

The sins are many, the motive the same. It’s fear: fear of sounding unprofessional, of being blamed, of being clear. This fear hovers in texts like the low-grade anxiety that has distorted public life in an age of terror.

First is fear of subjects. No one does anything. Things just happen, or should happen. Last year I wrote much of a federal research grant proposal. I explained what we wanted to find out, why and how. My journalistic style betrayed my inexperience. A colleague advised that I remove mentions of “I” or “we.” I did, and it sounded more scientific. Instead of saying, “We will question people,” we wrote something along the lines of “Subjects will be interviewed using a lightly-structured protocol and their answers to these questions will be ascertained.” I cringed at my complicity.

Then there is a fear of verbs. Since no one does anything, events only come to pass. All sentence construction is passive and indirect. Counselors don’t help clients; clients benefit from interaction with a counselor.

People also fear using a concrete noun, often out of sensitivity. In the field of addictions—oops, make that “substance abuse”—one rarely hears of addicts or alcoholics. We read of “a person with a substance abuse disorder.” So when advocates in Albany or Washington, D.C., mount their annual awareness campaigns, the average citizen cannot connect the need for more treatment of “substance use disorders” to their uncle the alcoholic. Similarly, when experts talk about law and order, there are no prisoners or delinquents or convicts or ex-cons, only “people involved with the criminal justice system.”

Descriptive words are switched every few years because people in a field decide the old term has acquired barnacles of stigma. This sensitivity backfires. “Handicap” was a perfectly good word. People have handicaps that limit their activities just as golfers have handicaps that limit their games. But we now say “disabled,” a much stronger word that means, to most of us, incapable. Advocates counter with “differently-abled.” The public turns away confused and annoyed.

Group-writers also fear using one word. Two or three must be better. So we have “to enter into a collaborative relationship,” instead of “to collaborate.” Or we laud a person’s “initiative-taking,” instead of “initiative,” or “skill set” rather than “skills.” No corporation has a “mission,” they have “mission statements.”

Writing is hard because thinking is hard. Who wants to do that? Instead, we laugh as our faculties dim. We go along and write badly because it’s easier. Why resist the group? They’ll only revise our work later on. I confess: it’s happened to me.

Finally, we fear writing clearly because we fear accountability. Better to hide behind the murk of verbiage. Thirty years ago, a colleague newly hired by a state agency was sent to a seminar on clear writing. Energized, he returned to the office and began composing understandable memos and reports. After a few days of this, a supervisor called him in. “Shut the door, Bob,” he said. Nice try, good intent, but cut it out. “We can’t write too clearly because if we do, then someone can come back and get us.”

—Christopher D. Ringwald

Christopher D. Ringwald is a visiting scholar at The Sage Colleges in Albany and is the author of The Soul of Recovery and Faith in Words.


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