Engineers, scientists, and military officers often turn out good prose. Their sentences may not always be limpid, lyrical or arresting, but as writers they are capable of a clarity and precision that academics and marketers often can’t or won’t match. Their work demands it. When a software engineer writes vague instructions, her program breaks. When a scientist notes observations imprecisely, her experiment suffers. When a Green Beret commander gives a rambling order, his guys are put at risk.
But a literary theorist who expresses his ideas in clear language betrays the “expert” mystery on which tenure depends. An MBA student who avoids crass jargon might fail for seeming not to know it. A marketer who relies on simple, direct language must know exactly what the product can do for the customer—and understanding that takes effort.
It seems to me that engineers and scientists are also willing to approach writing humbly, as a craft in which they are not expert. To them, clear prose is not a gift or a luxury, it’s a skill that can be learned with careful practice; a skill that makes them better at their jobs. They share this view with old-fashioned advertisers like David Ogilvy, fiction teachers like John Gardner, and great essayists, like E.B. White, who said “The best writing is re-writing.”
Literary hacks, consultants, and marketers, on the other hand, are slower to recognize their limitations and fix them. It may not even pay off to do so. Now that machines do the work of scanning abstracts for relevance, an article full of jargon will score more highly in a form of buzzword bingo. In the business of business mystique, all but the very best fear clarity. When you’re not convinced about what you’re selling, it takes courage to describe it in a way that can be understood. Even when you believe wholeheartedly, simplicity and grace takes much more effort—and more brains—than the cheap embrace of buzzwords and cliché. Jack Welch talks straight, but to a bog-standard middle manager, a description like “leveraging expertise in innovative, mission-critical enterprise solutions“ provides more letters for covering ass.
That’s why we have to endure weird fashions in marketing copy and business books: those pages of half-sentence paragraphs; the jargon; the endless ellipses; the “mood” fragments that flatter while they hide information, and the daft claims, like the one on Bono’s celebrity website, which announces that they are Making Poverty History. (More poverty, more places, than ever before?)
And that’s why engineers are reliable teachers of business writing. They’re not paid to make up words. They’re not afraid to commit to the end of a sentence. They care about efficiency and elegance, and see them as related. They get excited about “hard problems”, not “challenging opportunities for growth.” And they’re pleased, rather than nervous, when their readers understand exactly what they mean.
Many of his essays are collected here. Try these in particular:
Richard Gabriel is a Stanford computer scientist, an entrepreneur, and a poet. It’s a good combination.
- Your profession includes writing, so learn how to write. No one is naturally talented enough to get by on instinct alone.
- Study writing by reading books on writing. I suggest “Style: Toward Clarity and Grace,” by Joseph M. Williams.
- Study writing by reading good writers, and not just science writers. Read Knuth but also John McPhee and Rick Bass. Try to understand how they do it. Think about the good writing you read.
- Learn proper grammar; there are zillions of books on grammar.
- Get a couple of good dictionaries and use them. I have about a half dozen I use routinely. Some poets look up every single word in their poems to make sure they are using language accurately.
- Learn to revise and edit; there are books on this, but I suggest workshops.
- Read poetry. Nothing teaches you better the power of good writing and the skills to write compressed sentences. Poetry workshops are full of fiction and essay writers who are there to learn language skills.
- Practice writing. Write every day. If you are a top-notch computer scientist, you probably read technical papers nearly every day. You are a writer too, so practice.
- Workshop your writing. Writers learn by workshopping. Every night across the country writers sit in groups of 3 to 20, reading and critiquing each other’s work. Not only are these professional writers but amateurs who simply want to improve their diaries.
Read the full essay.