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May 2018

Greetings once again. Sorry to take so long for this edition of the newsletter, but the comfortable laziness of reading instead of writing is ruling my behavior. Plus, I've got plenty of training work with various federal agencies in business writing, presentation skills, evaluations, time management, media relations, etc. So I don't need the newsletter anymore for marketing purposes. But I still enjoy bitching about bad writing when I teach, which I intend to do as long as it's fun.

So this is my last newsletter for the simple reason that I've said what I want to say, and I'd rather write letters to my local newspaper's editorial page about the shallow narcissist who's trying to make a hash out of our democracy.

In any case, thanks to all of you who wrote to ask why I haven't sent out any newsletters for many months. The answer, which should be apparent by now, is that I'm not dead, just indolent.

Back to atrocious writing. I'll close with examples, old and new, of how we engage in silly phrasing and word choice that owe their existence to unthinking "monkey see, monkey write" and "monkey hear, monkey say."

Let's circle back... Used to guide a discussion, it sounds like someone wants to take a circuitous route back to God knows where instead of a more direct "Let's go back to the reason we're here." Or "As I said at the start of this memo, we need to..." A conclusion that refers to the opening point (bottom line up front) in different phrasing is solid reader-friendly structure.

We have an existential problem... Stop it! How about "We have a problem." Pompously throwing in a word usually associated with the thinking of Sartre and Camus adds absolutely nothing to the way we communicate. Take the word out and the meaning is still clear. We should always write to edify, not impress. Abigail Adams, our second First Lady, wrote: "We have too many high-sounding words and too few actions that correspond with them."

Drill down or take a deep dive... How about "We need to spend more time on this," or "Before we go any further, we need to clarify..." I wonder why so many business communicators assume their interlocutors would think: "Drill down? Wow! This dude is really with it. What a great analogy. I can't wait to use 'drill down' in a meeting or email."

This is in your wheel house... Ridiculous. How about instead "You're good at this." Or "This is why we hired you." or "This is what you do best." There's nothing wrong with plain English, straight-ahead flattery -- if it's deserved.

I don't have the bandwidth to take that on now... That could be read as -- assuming the speaker has a sudden fit of candor -- "I'm not smart enough..." OR "It's Friday afternoon, and you want me to take on what?" or "I'm way too comfortable staying within my narrowly defined job description, so don't challenge me to..."

Due diligence... Aping legal language ignores the obligations that go with professional communication. Try "Work hard" or "Make sure you've checked your work carefully." "Due diligence" is a prime example of slipping into a sort of faux authority mode, ignoring the time-tested principle that we should write like we speak (excepting colloquialisms and profanity, of course).

Currently and ongoing... One's an adverb and the other's an adjective. Take either one out of a sentence and the meaning is the same. Let the tense carry the message. "We have a problem." "We had a problem." "We will have a problem."

I love what E.B. White, who lived in my home state of Maine and wrote "Charlotte's Web," had to say about verbosity: "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place."

Past experience and past history... Really? If you're clairvoyant enough to have a grip on future experience or history, we need to team up and take a road trip to Pimlico or Churchill Downs or Aqueduct. I love to bet the horses, and we can split the winnings 50-50. Any careful reader of such phrasing has a right to wonder if the writer is actually stupid. And experience and history are past.

We are in the process of assessing... No. "We are assessing."

We will be helping... No. "We will help."

Over the course of two years, we have... No. "Over two years..."

Note: The three previous points have one thing in common: Adding useless words somehow imparts weight to the message. At least I think that's what offenders assume. Keep it simple: Brevity and clarity go together.

Going forward... Again, take this silly phrase out of any sentence and you've lost absolutely nothing. Remember: Verb tense is your friend. If a sentence like "Going forward, what are your plans?" doesn't irritate the stuffing out of you, try reading some books from the last century, before the Internet and Facebook and all the rest of it gave us so many opportunities to imitate each other mindlessly.

The English language is a vast treasure house of symbols that invite you to distinguish yourself as a communicator with a message worth reading. Limit yourself to imitation and you risk alienating your audience.

And finally, the great prose stylist Winston Churchill offered this pungent tidbit: "From now on, ending a sentence on a preposition is something up with which I will not put." Get it?

Thanks for reading, and keep the faith.

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