Strong Language

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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.

Further reading
Paul Graham
Many of his essays are collected here. Try these in particular:

Writing, Briefly
The Age of the Essay
Why Smart People Have Bad Ideas
The Submarine.” On the PR industry.

Richard Gabriel is a Stanford computer scientist, an entrepreneur, and a poet. It’s a good combination.

Deliberate Writing
Lower Standards:” Why churning stuff out often leads to better writing.
The Nature of Poetic Order:” Gabriel adapts Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language theories to poetry.

“Writing Broadside”

  • 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.

—Richard Gabriel
Read the full essay.

23 comments to “Strong Language”

  1. Comment by niti:

    hear hear.

  2. Comment by Oliver:

    A quick disclaimer: I have an the final paragraph of Paul Graham’s “Writing, Briefly” pinned to my cubicle wall. And I purchased his “ANSI Common Lisp” for an absurd amount from the internet, as well as his “Hackers and Painters” collection of essays (still unread), so clearly I’m something of a fan.

    But I’ve no knowledge of one field he uses as a regular source of analogy and anecdote: painting. Maciej Ceglowski demolishes some of Graham’s writing from the point of view of an experienced painter. I still have Graham’s tips on writing on my wall, so clearly I am still something a fan, but I am somewhat more suspicious when he strays outside the field that made him his millions.

  3. Comment by Dervala:

    Oliver, that’s wonderful! Thank you so much.

    I have the same reaction to both Paul Graham and Richard Gabriel—great, clear writing, but I’d never go on a date with either. And this explains why.

  4. Comment by anonymous pedant:

    Don’t underestimate the importance of social behaviour: people try very hard, consciously or subconsciously, to imitate the language and behaviour of the other people around them. That observation applies as much to a 60-year-old professor in the academy as it does to a 6-year-old student in the elementary-school playground.

  5. Comment by Dervala:

    Joseph Williams talks about that kind of imitation and its effect on written language in his book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace.

  6. Comment by John Koetsier:

    GREAT article …

    I had an example just yesterday of an absolute gear-head generating the clearest copy you could ever imagine … because other people had to make decisions, quote prices, and do work based on his description.

  7. Comment by Henry Story:

    flattery will get you far in life :-)

  8. Comment by Claus:

    I think you need to add the disclaimer “Engineers willing to write” – I like to write and consider myself a capable writer, but I have had many coworkers who quite simply did not feel comfortable putting words together and consequently didn’t. I ended up doing whole lot of writing. Still do.

    I think it has something to do with writing as an activity completely separate from a problem solving frame of mind – the activities you’re typically doing if you’re e.g. writing software, have very little to do with the activity of writing prose.

  9. Comment by Dervala:

    Yep, Claus. Not all engineers write, not all engineers write well, but those who write are more likely to turn out decent prose than their counterparts in several word-based professions.

    I don’t work with engineers any more, but I miss the way they talk and write. Problem-solving brains.

    Then again, the Ivy-League engineers I worked with in Manhattan (including Joel-on-Software Joel) were probably smarter-than-the-average-bear all round. They terrified me, but boy did they give good email.

  10. Comment by Andy Havens:

    You make some great points, and ones that I’ve made myself. But you leave out, I think, the other side of the argument. Just as many writers and marketers could learn a few things about clarity from engineers, scientists, etc., many in those fields could learn important lessons about communications and customer relationships from people who manage those areas for a living.

    As a marketing manager and writer, I’ve seen bad and good writers come out of every industry. And, yes, many marketers are simply very, very bad at their craft. As in anything, bad is easier than good, and way easier than great. The reason we’re inundated with bad and mediocre marketing messages is because we live in a world awash in marketing. There’s simply way too much of it. I’d say the same thing about much of the restaurant food I’ve eaten in my life, both fast and otherwise; it ain’t great. But since you have a few billion people who have to eat three times a day, you get lots of demand and relatively little pushback for excellence across the board.

    Same with marketing and business writing. As one of my professors once put it, “Just because everyone can write, everyone thinks they can write.” The people who can really do a great job of it are few and far between.

    But guess what? The same holds true for engineers, scientists and soldiers. And while the clarity of their prose may be very helpful and worth emulating in some instances, it often belies a linearity of thought that can be less than helpful in others.

    For example, marketing communications are often meant to appeal to broad audiences, or at least not to very specific ones. It’s fine for a users’ manual to describe the one, exact way to assemble a tricycle (although there are good and bad ways to do that, too), but when you are describing an experience, precision can leave many of your readers wondering, “Who is she talking to?”

    And this isn’t just a case, then, of helping a “good engineering writer learn to be a bit more vague from time to time.” In the larger, business development picture, the ability to deeply consider and embrace the breadth of one’s audience(s) is a skill that engineers, scientists, etc., could work on with their kin from marketing. How many times have you used a product, only to think, “Did they even test this out in conditions similar to mine?” Or, “Why is this only available for one type of situation?” The linearity of thought required for many design and engineering processes doesn’t often take into account some of the ideas about customer experiences, relationships, balance, audience, form factor, etc., that are a routine part of many major marketing communications programs.

    Yes, many of us marketing hacks could learn a thing or two about writing from engineers who write well. But many engineers could learn a thing or two from marketers who regularly engage many diverse audiences in conversations about our products and industries.

  11. Comment by Dervala:

    Andy, thanks for the thoughtful response. I’m a marketing hack myself, of sorts, and I take these potshots to keep myself honest.

  12. Comment by Jolyon:

    Dervala, thank you for a good article. Though it’s a bit of an old chestnut, perhaps I might also recommend George Orwell’s seminal essay entitled “Politics and the English Language”. Although he focused on politics, it’s not really the point of the essay – his true message is that woolly thinking and woolly writing (and speech) are bound up with one another. I like his 6 rules for writing, and especially the commonsense of the last one:

    1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

    2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.

    3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

    4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

    5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

    6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

    I am a lawyer practising in England and have noticed that most lawyers here tend to fall into one of two camps: those who complicate matters by long, Latinate word-forms and constructions, often to conceal a lack of knowledge or confidence, and those who try to put things plainly and simply for the benefit of their clients. This latter course often takes rather longer to achieve than the former. What can occasionally be disheartening is that clients, bamboozled by the arcane jargon of a Type 1 lawyer, sometimes think that they have the better handle on a problem or are more skilled and/or more intelligent than a Type 2 lawyer. Experience tends to suggest the reverse.

    I forgot now who it was who wrote at the end of a letter words to the effect that “I apologize for the length of this letter, but I did not have time to make it shorter.” Words to live by for the professional who writes.

  13. Comment by Stefan Chis:

    “I apologize for the length of this letter, but I did not have time to make it shorter.”

    You are quoting Goethe.

  14. Comment by Dervala:

    That’s also been attributed (in a slightly different form) to Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, among others. I’ve always believed it was George Bernard Shaw.

    Jolyon, I’m a fan of the Orwell essay and have written about it here before. It did make me laugh to see Joseph Williams neat dissection of Orwell’s failure to follow his own advice in that same essay. Oh well. We love him for his moral courage, if not always for his sentences.

  15. Comment by John Rynne:

    Those Orwell rules are great, but I think he is too heavy on the passive voice. There are times when the passive voice is the only way to go (engineering and scientific writing, to quote just one example).
    I am a translator. I had a co-worker once who would go to inordinate lengths to avoid using the passive voice (“because you shouldn’t”) despite it being the best solution in the circumstances.

    And Orwell’s rule 6 isn’t a sufficient let-out, I’m afraid, because the results may be ridiculous without being “outright barbarous” (maybe “barbarous” meant something different way back when).

  16. Comment by Claus:

    The “long letter, no time to make it short” quote has been attributed to an awful number of people, but is in fact by Blaise Pascal.
    Details on the origin here:
    http://www.classy.dk/log/archive/001074.html

  17. Comment by Dervala:

    Thanks, Claus!

    John, I sound like I’m on some pyramid-selling scheme, but the Joseph Williams book I mentioned before, Style: Towards Clarity and Grace talks sense about the passive voice (and much else). The book deals with all kinds of writing, not just the New Yorkerish stuff that most guides deal with, and so he’s realistic about its usefulness in some contexts.

  18. Comment by Mark Hughes:

    An unusually high number of engineers I’ve met hold as their writing ideal Richard Mitchell’s Underground Grammarian (http://www.sourcetext.com/grammarian/).

    “After years of fussing about the pathetic, baffled language of students, I realized that it was not in their labored writings that bad language dwelt. /This/, this inane gabble, this was bad language. Evil language. Here was a man taking the public money for the work of his mind and darkening counsel by words without understanding.”
    -Richard Mitchell, Less than Words Can Say

  19. Comment by Dervala:

    Mark, thank you very much for the pointer. I’ve heard of The Underground Grammarian, but never read the books. I’m looking forward to them.

  20. Comment by Jim Grisanzio:

    Really nice thoughts here. I’ve had the exact same experience working with the engineers at Sun Microsystems and the scientists at Tufts University.

  21. Comment by Lillian:

    Maybe someone can advise on this one:

    Most technical writing, especially instruction manuals, should be written in the active voice to avoid confusion. For example “Check the checkbox”, instead of “The check box should be checked” (by you in this step? or should be like that when you got to that step? if it isn’t, do you have to go back a step?)

    A technical writer I worked with would not use the active voice because she said it sounded rude. Her native language was not English – is the active/passive voice used differently in other languages, in this respect?

  22. Comment by Sara Mitchell:

    You are right about the use of passive voice in
    other languages. Active voice is considered
    extremely rude in some cultures. I don’t know
    this for fact, but have been told that this
    is true for many asian cultures.

    I am a technical writer so much of what I
    write must be very clear and precise. Every
    class on technical writing (at least in the US)
    stresses active voice as the best solution.
    Many out-and-out suggest never using passive
    voice.

    Professionally, I do use it sometimes. There are
    rare occasions when rewriting something into
    active voice makes it longer and less useful to
    the current task or purpose of what I’m writing.

    I’d also like to comment on the marketing vs.
    clear, short writing. What I was taught, and
    try very hard to follow, is that good writing
    fits the audience and the purpose they will
    use the information for.

    If the purpose is marketing, then the point is
    to convince the audience which is much more
    about emotions than about clear, sensible
    reality. If the point is for an academic to
    review and become interested in a new thesis,
    then the language must be comfortable for
    the academic even if that seems jargon filled
    and silly to me. If the point is for a user
    to be able to use software to accomplish a
    goal, then it must both fit the user’s
    actual goal (sometimes hard to know) and
    be understandable to the user.

    That said, short lucid writing that fits the
    purpose and audience is always better. It’s
    also rare and to be enjoyed deeply when
    you encounter it.

  23. Comment by Pike Rover:

    If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance…Baffle them with bullshit!