This article jumped out at me from the pages of the Saturday Guardian.
It’s a cautionary tale that illustrates the dangers of tampering with punctuation if you don’t fully understand what you’re fiddling with.
But it’s cheering to see that (almost) everyone involved seems to agree that the aim of punctuation is to make meaning clearer.
In 2011 I was invited to lay a wreath at the memorial in Australia to the 2,400 soldiers who died on the Sandakan Death March in the Second World War. I was also asked to speak and deliver a short, appropriate reflection. After the ceremony, the Australian Chief of Army very kindly put a copy of my words on the Australian Army website, but that entry is now gone (apart from a dead link on the Slovenian version of Facebook. Make of that what you will). All that remains is an inexplicable but welcome entry that someone kindly placed on slideshare.net.
I think it sounds better than it reads, if you see what I mean. This is interesting because it shows that our speech-writing style needs to be different from our normal written style. The same applies within our written work; our Tweets are generally a different style from our Yammers, and our blogs are different yet again. Our audience – and the way we try to reach them – should dictate how we write and it’s important to get the appropriate style. There’s clearly quite a lot hanging on this and it’s worth thinking about, because we need to get it right.
Lots of people are interested in this whole business of trying to achieve clarity. Unfortunately, they’re outnumbered by those who aren’t. To make things worse, some of those who put a lot of effort into their pursuit of clarity are inadvertently undermining their own efforts by making things a lot less clear. Here’s an example of the sort of thing I’m talking about. A great friend of mine, an admirably clear thinker himself, tweeted a link to me that he knew I’d be interested in. Here it is: http://bit.ly/WUVIcZ
Now it’s an interesting article, there is no doubt about that, but it does tend to disappear up its own fundament a bit as it engages in an increasingly frantic debate over the place of the Oxford comma in written English. At one point you sense that the writer might have realised this too, when he says, “Writing online is so nearly effortless that reading…has become a chore in comparison.” Quite.
True clarity will help meaning to shine through with, or without, the Oxford comma. If you have to rely on one tiny punctuation mark to free meaning from your words then perhaps you need to re-write your piece. But it will be worth the effort. You’ll feel better about your work, other people will understand it more easily and who knows where it will lead? To better things, I should think, if the words of another of the thinkers that I follow on Twitter are to be believed – “Clarity precedes success”. And that’s a very good note to end on.
A great idea will not lead to anything unless we can communicate it to others.
Have you ever thought about the cost to a business of poorly written documents? Well, neither had I until I came across an old estimate from a builder. We’d asked him to put a price on a total re-build, so that we could insure the newly extended house and garage. This is what his letter said:
“Further to meeting with you last week, you requested that I provide you with an indication as to the reinstatement cost for insurance purposes of your property as extended.
The property offers an approximate 376m2 of accommodation measured externally, plus a detached garage; the estimated reinstatement cost of the property is to be fairly represented by the sum of £345,000.
We trust this is to your satisfaction and I have taken the liberty of enclosing an invoice to cover our time and travelling costs in this matter.”
Quite a long-winded way of saying it, I thought. It certainly takes a bit of time to read and sift out the sense from the needless padding. At the end of it I was left feeling that I was dealing with someone who likes dressing up a basic message with all sorts of extras to make it look important, which is not necessarily a good impression for a builder to be creating in the minds of potential customers. After all, if he can make a simple message into something as ornate as that, what on earth is he going to be doing with his building work? Or, come to that, with his bills…
Try this alternative version of his letter:
“When we last met, you asked me to let you know how much it would cost to re-build your house, so you can get the insurance figure right. As it covers about 376 square metres, with a separate garage, my professional opinion is that it could be re-built for £345,000.
A bill for my time and travel is attached.”
Quicker to write, easier to read and an overall saving of 32% on the number of words. So the builder’s admin costs go down and his customer gets a clear answer to his question – there are benefits all round, and the customer is more likely to remember the builder (at least for his writing skills) and therefore recommend him to other people.
Of course, all I’ve done here is to look at one routine business letter. Multiply that by the number of letters the builder might send out in a year, add on the writing he might have to do for brochures or a web site and you soon have quite a lot of ways of reducing costs.
Clear writing – what a good way to reduce at least some of the costs to business, with a longer term marketing and reputational benefit thrown in for free.
Last week saw the passing of a remarkable bit of technology. Largely unregarded in its declining years, it was once a leader in its field. For those who don’t remember it, or who never experienced it, it used the analogue TV signal to carry live, up to the minute information on a range of topics. The weather, sports results, breaking news at home and abroad were all grist to its formidable mill.
There wasn’t much space for long-winded updates, and none at all for opinions, so it was purely factual – and all the better for that. The best Ceefax obituary I’ve yet seen was published in today’s Guardian, in the sports section. Here’s a link to it: http://bit.ly/VtPfkv and you’ll note that Ceefax is described in it as “discreet … authoritative…furiously disiplined, and free from vanity”.
Now isn’t that exactly how you’d like to hear someone describing YOUR writing? If it isn’t, well it should be, and that’s all I’m saying about that. Oh, and the article in the Guardian is well worth a read too. I particularly liked the final three paragraphs, but then I would, wouldn’t I?
I think it was Mark Twain who once apologized for writing a lengthy letter – explaining that he had lacked the time to make it shorter. And it’s quite true that it takes time and effort to say what you want to in as few words as possible. But it is a skill that we all ought to cultivate.
The people who have this skill honed to utter perfection are generally the newspaper headline writers – especially those of the UK’s Sun newspaper. They can distil an issue down to three or four words, leaving the reader in no doubt over what the issue is and what The Sun thinks of it.
And then we have Twitter. Go back and have a critical look through peoples’ Tweets and you’ll soon pick out those who can say lots in a few words. Then have a go yourself; keep it short and sweet - after all, size isn’t everything.