On Writing Badly

How does one even begin? There are so many very good examples of very bad writing.

Last week, I discussed how my own writing process has changed—for the better, in my opinion—over the last few years. That included an explicit acknowledgement of a time when my writing was more opaque and impenetrable than in retrospect I would have liked. And here’s the thing. I thought I was writing well. I was just massively deluded.

This begs the question of why we actually write the way we do. What is it that compels us to plan, structure and actually write documents that are badly crafted, awkwardly phrased, inappropriately structured or otherwise unfathomable?

To clarify, I’m not talking about poor spelling, bad grammar, txt spk, or tersely phrased emails. I’m talking about actual writing: reports, presentations, analyses and other documents that are intended to be formal, professional and coherent.

Obviously, quality varies because some people are simply better writers. They have an aptitude for it. They enjoy it. Or they’ve simply done more of it. At the same time, there are perfectly intelligent, well reasoned and educated people that write incredibly badly. And the challenge is that they do it on purpose.

That’s not to say that they are trying to write badly. In their minds eye, I suspect they genuinely believe they are doing an awesome job. I certainly know I felt that way. More troublingly, they are also likely getting complimented on their writing. Not by everyone, mind you, but by enough of a subset—mostly those who write in much the same style—that they are getting positive reinforcement. And sadly, they probably aren’t hearing—or are dismissing—feedback that what they’ve written isn’t very clear.

So part of the answer to why we write badly is clearly that we don’t know we are doing it. But I want to push a little deeper, and explore why we are choosing to write the way that we are. Because If we can recognize underlying drivers of why we are making specific choices, we can also start identifying strategies to write differently. We can diagnose what’s going on—hopefully as we are doing it—and choose to do something else instead.

A little example might be helpful here. I used to love—and I mean positively adore—writing long, convoluted, comma-laden sentences. I was an inarguable master of complex, compound sentences, ones that built on, and clarified, and explored a thought, complete with qualification, amplification and elaboration. I also had a lengthy, torrid and passionate affair with the semi-colon; arguably, I still do. The consequence was that it was not unknown for me to write an entire paragraph—one pushing 200 words or so—with not so much as a period in sight.

And why did I do this? You could argue that I didn’t notice I was doing it, and there is a kernel of truth in that. But push further, and the real reason is more complex. It was all about nuance. It was about qualification and context. I was trying to be as precise as I could in the answer I was providing. The problem is that I was actually doing the opposite. My attempts to highlight conditions, provisos and caveats had the exact opposite effect from what was intended. What was supposed to be precise and specific was unclear and vague.

Ridding myself of this habit took work. Sometimes I still catch myself writing run-on sentences that I need to reign in. Somewhere along the way, I picked up a rule of thumb from a communications professional (and an extremely good one) that helped a lot: “No sentence should be more than 10 words long.” For her, it was an article of faith. To me, it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But it makes a useful point. Short sentences are clear. And if you are needing to use significantly more words to make your point, then there should be a very good reason for it. Simply keeping in mind that guideline helps me. It prompts me to ask myself how I can restructure what I’m saying to be more clear.

So, why do we write badly? And what can we do about it? In the following points I outline the more common offences that I’ve encountered, and offer my perspective on how they can be countered:

  • We’re lazy. This is probably the single greatest challenge. We don’t want to take the time to write well, and we think we can get away with it. And it is true that sometimes we can. There are documents that I’ve written that I strongly suspect were never read, or at least not closely. Sometimes we get lucky, and on a good day we still manage to write well without making an extraordinary effort to do so. We do the minimum amount necessary to get the job done, and no more. Often that means that the essentials don’t get attended to: planning, outlining and proofreading. This also communicates something else, however. It sends a clear signal to our audience that we don’t value and respect them enough to take the time to communicate more clearly.
  • We’re trying to be clever. Our efforts to appear smart is what inflicts so many buzzwords upon the world. Rather than saying we are “too busy,” we talk about “capacity,” or “bandwidth,” or “runway.” I once memorably sat in a meeting where someone very earnestly looked at me and said, “I don’t want to be solutionizing that right now.” In the recent debate in Canada about oil pipelines, it became trendy to talk about getting “oil to tidewater,” because “ocean” or “coast” was clearly too prosaic. As a person cleverer than me once said, never use a big word when a diminutive one will do.
  • We’re trying to be respected. I suspect a significant reason for complex, wordy and awkward writing is that people are trying to impress and earn respect. Academics are perhaps the most guilty of this. Many academic papers are barely coherent to a lay audience. And just because I’ve earned a doctorate doesn’t mean I find many of them any easier to read (or stay awake through). What I have progressively learned is that one of the greatest talents in earning respect is not keeping complex ideas complex, but in making difficult things easily understandable.
  • We’re trying to show we’re part of the tribe. People are social. We like to belong. And one of the ways that we demonstrate belonging is by how we talk. The most obvious illustration of this is with accents; they speak to where we come from and who we are. We also do it with the words we choose. The challenge with tribes is that they inherently segregate: there is an us, and there is a them. By communicating with the tribe—and signalling that we are one of the tribe—we are pretty conclusively not communicating to anyone not in the tribe. Information technology is possibly the most egregious example. The breadth of acronyms and terms the IT professionals use is astonishing, and overwhelming to outsiders. Truth be told, many people in IT get confused too (but are often loathe to admit it). However, every industry and profession does this to a greater or lesser degree.
  • We’re trying to be evasive. An interesting objective of communication is at times not to communicate. The goal is not understanding, but obfuscation. We want to appear to be saying something, while in actual fact we are saying little and committing to nothing. Politics is a great venue to illustrate this point. It is an interesting talent of some politicians to speak in vague generalities, rather than being precise or specific. The goal in doing so is for the listener to interpret or insert their own meaning into what they are hearing. The result is that each audience member feels that the politician is speaking directly to them and their concerns, and is telling them what they want most to hear. In actual reality, they are doing nothing of the sort.
  • We’re trying to sound like we know what we are talking about. Related to the idea of appearing competent is wanting to make ourselves look knowledgeable on a topic, even when we lack actual or complete understanding. We talk around something. We paraphrase. We parrot what we have heard others say.Sometimes we struggle with what we are writing because we don’t yet fully understand it. At that point, however, we are writing for ourselves, as we work through a concept or an idea. Once accomplished, we need to go back and rewrite for the audience we are actually trying to communicate to.
  • We don’t want to offend people. It is an interesting idea that clear communication can offend. When we advocate for something, though, there are people that will be in favour and there will be people that are opposed. The clearer we are about what we are recommending, suggesting or stating, the more definitively people can take sides. Particularly if we know something will be unpopular, it’s tempting to be vague and imprecise rather than opting for saying what we mean and being clear about what we intend. We skirt and sidestep rather than tackling the issue head-on.
  • We think we have to write that way. Sadly, in certain contexts, there is an expectation of how we should write. There are rules. There are conventions and traditions that are expected to be adhered to. The options for flexibility, for creativity and for clarity are more constrained. Academic writing is again an example of this. An early draft of my thesis was criticized for not employing proper paragraph structure. And by “proper,” that meant that every paragraph had to have an introductory sentence, explanatory sentences and a concluding sentence. Tell them what you are going to say, tell them, and then tell them what you just told them. Not only was it painful to write, but it made for an inordinately repetitive document. Yet it met the requirements for a properly written thesis.

There are many different reasons why people write the way that they do. Importantly, it’s not an accident but a conscious choice. What looks like bad writing to the outside observer may, in the eyes of the author, be the best thing that they have ever crafted. And that is the greatest challenge to overcome. We need to confront why we feel the need to write the way we do, and ask ourselves if it is really serving our purposes. Most particular, we should be asking if it serves the purpose of our audience. When it doesn’t, we need to think about what will serve them better.

When this is done well, it is noteworthy. Doing early reading for my thesis in particular highlighted this for me. Working through the literature in pursuit of a thesis topic, I had to read untold numbers of academic papers, easily in the hundreds. It was as mind-numbing an experience as it sounds. But every once in a while, I would come across a paper that stood out for its clarity, its concision and its wit. In particular, I found the work of what came to be known as the ‘Carnegie School,’ a group of researchers in the 1950s and 1960s at Carnegie Mellon University exploring economics and decision making.

What was clear from the papers of this group of researchers (most notably Herbert Simon, James March and Richard Cyert) was that they thoroughly enjoyed their work. They were exploring topics that interested them. They were playing with ideas, and they were playing with how to express and communicate those ideas. In their work, I found economics papers that were genuinely laugh-out-loud funny (as astonishing as that idea might actually sound). It is all too clear that for them their work was a joy.

I was reminded of this again when reading a different document earlier this week. This time, it was a legal brief. As with academia, legal writing tends to be dry and formal. What made this document notable is that, despite being a structured, properly formatted, well researched brief, it is achingly funny. It’s an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in the defamation case involving comedian John Oliver. It came to my attention because its making the rounds of the internet, and if you haven’t seen it, it is well worth a read.

Writing is intended to have an impact. We write to inform, to educate, to argue, to persuade and to entertain. When we write poorly, we undermine ourselves and squander the opportunity we’ve been given. We need to be clear about the action and reaction we are seeking from our audience. We need to identify what our audience needs in terms of information, analysis and argument. We need to consciously think through how to structure and present this in a way that will resonate most effectively. And then we need to relentlessly focus on writing that document. Do that well, and people will remember, they will respect and they will respond.

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