Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Strunk and White and Business Writing — Part 2

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Perusing The Elements of Style, especially Chapter IV, “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused,” makes you think that they wrote the book with business writing particularly in mind. Some of the choicest terms that Messrs. Strunk and White have in their sights:

  • Finalize, which they call ‘pompous, ambiguous.’
  • Insightful, which ‘crops up merely to inflate the commonplace.’
  • Interesting. As the saying goes, if you have to assert something as interesting, it probably isn’t.
  • Meaningful: ‘a bankrupt’ word.
  • -oriented, which they cast aside as a ‘pretentious device.’
  • Thanking you in advance. This expression is silly, annoying and unprofessional.

Strunk and White have an almost scandalous point: under close scrutiny of their meaning, these terms are vacuous. They lack content. They have almost become filler in routine business conversations: add a ‘meaningful’ before ‘change’ and you suddenly appear inspired, analytical and philosophical.

Those readers who hail from the consulting industry will reflect on many times you have heard, and have uttered, these words. Indeed, newbie consultants keenly study when their elders utilize these terms and seek to become as masterful in dropping an ‘-ize.’

Re-reading The Elements of Style since the Part 1 post has forced me to rethink the problem with business writing. Yes, poor writing and grammar litter every corner of the business world. But these only reveal a deeper problem: the lack of content, of thought, of logic and of precision in business communications.

What can be done about this state of affairs? Unfortunately, on the whole, I doubt much. Can any remedy treat such poor writing skill and thinking on a mass scale? But we, as individual leaders, can reform writing in our own circles. The work at times will be tough, but we must demand clearer thinking, tighter argumentation, better use of evidence and more forceful language.

Why do we care? If the business world has decided upon a course of slovenly intellectual and communication habits, why should we do differently? Surely, taking the higher ground will, over time, prove to be a competitive advantage. But I have another reason – logical thinking, heated discourse clearer writing make life more engaging. They grab us, they force us to strive to great efforts and they disallow mediocrity – in business and in life.


Written by Russell S.

November 6, 2009 at 11:24 pm

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