Communication sins to avoid


July 5th, 2011

Obfuscation. Redundancy. Passive voice. Fancy-pants language. Overblown reports. Arrrggghhhhhh….

I was reminded of these sins against communication when reading this series of tweets from a friend who works for an aid organisation (disclosure – I’ve done some work for his employer).

When I was 16 I knew I wanted to be a journalist. To be precise, I wanted to be an agricultural journalist. I spent many school holidays, on my brother’s farm. I was naive enough about the business of farming to simply enjoy the lifestyle: riding the old horse who would roll in the fallowed soil, whether I was riding him or not (I learnt to be quite nimble in leaping off his back and later, taking detours around any bare ground), drafting and drenching sheep, feeding the dogs, fencing. Okay, that’s not true – I’ve never enjoyed fencing.

So by my mid teens, I’d become enamoured with words and with rural life. It seemed natural that I would pursue a career as an agricultural journalist (especially as my first choice, astronomical photographer, seemed out of the question based solely on the peals of laughter that would ensue from any adults who asked me what I wanted to do). I researched the whole thing and figured I should learn about agriculture first, then do journalism. I was impatient. I know that comes as a complete shock to those of you who know me well. And I worked out I could go to agricultural college after year 11, skipping a whole year of school with its timetables and rules and bells and…oh sorry, I got carried away. There was a little obstacle of girls not being accepted into agricultural colleges at that time, and my teachers mumbling something about ‘girls don’t do that sort of thing’.

I did go to agricultural college, spent three years learning a lot about agriculture and a lot more about life. I ended up working with a brilliant bunch of people in my first ever real job: an ex-editor of a large daily newspaper, an extraordinary journalist who had fled Sri Lanka, an editor who was a magician with a blue pencil, a graphic artist who patiently taught me about grids and layout and instilled a love of typography, and an artist who drew exquisite images. It was pre-computers. I know. Hard to believe.

So when I read these tweets this morning, I was taken straight back to editing similar documents. Documents that were padded with pages and pages of redundant background information and irrelevant details – because apparently, a longer or thicker ┬ádocument has more substance and credibility. Um, no it doesn’t.

And documents and articles riddled with big words – because apparently, big words indicate that you’re more educated. Um, no it doesn’t.

And written in the passive voice, as if the author was some sort of third-party observer – because apparently, the passive voice indicates objectivity. Um, no it doesn’t.

Writing, like a lot of other things, is full of status. Status as a writer is earned through practice and craftsmanship. It doesn’t come from using obscure language, multi-syllable words, and long, meandering sentences that lose the point (and probably the reader). And as every writer knows the best way to write better is to read a lot of others writers, and to write a lot (I’m trying to take my own advice here).

So if you ever find yourself preferring a larger word where a short one will do, or padding to make something feel more substantial (compared with strengthening your argument) or writing like a voice-over, take this advice from @morealtitude (who, by the way, is a great writer and knows what he’s talking about):

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