Guides to good – and very,very bad – writing

However much PR people go on about the various skills essential to PR practice there is one overwhelming pre-requisite – the need to write well. What makes it challenging is that the writing is usually not in the author’s voice but more frequently in the voices of many others.

Equally frequently many of those voices are using, and demanding, words which can only be regarded as utter claptrap. Once upon a time we called it jargon – a word which Shirley Hazzard, in her book We Need Silence to Find Out What we Think, said derived from ancient times and related to the twittering of geese. But now – along with capital T Twitter and business claptrap the geese sound like songbirds.

Tony Jaques recently sent the blog a wonderful article which all PR people, indeed all aspiring writers, should read. It was by Lucy Kellaway (Financial Times 16 July 2017) and called: How I lost my 25-year battle against corporate claptrap: the exponential rise of guff in business shows no sign of abating.

For many years Kellaway wrote a weekly FT column humorously excoriating management speak and one hilarious book Martin Lukes: Who Moved my Blackberry? She now writes 12 FT pieces a year and teaches in a London school as part of the new charity, Now Teach, she co-founded.

Prominent amongst those she has exposed for mouthing ‘business bullshit’ is Starbucks founder, Howard Schultz, who she terms a ‘champion in the bullshit space.’ For example, Kellaway writes: “The Starbucks executive chairman has provided me with more material than any other executive alive or dead. Yet he is still at it, and still outdoing himself. Earlier this year he announced that the new Starbucks Roasteries were ‘delivering an immersive, ultra-premium, coffee-forward experience’. In this ultra-premium, jargon-forward twaddle the only acceptable word is ‘an’.”

Turning Orwell on his head, so to speak, she produces “fluent in flannel: a guide to mastering the method” of producing claptrap with some vivid examples. The guide’s rules: never use a short word when a long will do; everyday euphemisms are the way forward; disregard the grammar you learnt at school; there is no such thing as too much emotion; if you produce something simple, rebrand it so no-one will know what it is; do not limit yourself to words that are in the dictionary; there is no such thing as too much metaphor and cliché in one sentence; and, ignore rule number one. If the last is confusing just think of all those people who use short well-known words but with a totally different meaning – such as ‘play’ when you mean ‘work’. Kellaway also highlights how in claptrap all verbs can become nouns and vice versa. On example she provides is ‘medalling’ which she dubs a ‘nerb’.

The blog does love one example she provides: Rob Stone co-CEO of ad agency Cornerstone for “heroically mixing cliché, metaphor and hot air to say nothing: ‘As brands build out a world footprint, they look for the no-holds-barred global POV that’s always been part of our wheelhouse.’” You can just imagine the forceful and effective advertising the man creates.

Readers should avail themselves of more of the examples Kellaway provides while reflecting on other examples they know of: for instance written by their boss, a colleague or themselves. You can read and hear her here.

In contrast to business claptrap it is worth remembering Orwell’s advice: never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print; never use a long word where a short one will do; if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out; never use the passive where you can use the active; never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent; and, break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Incidentally, if you are interested in good writing Harold Evans new book, Do I Make Myself Clear?, is now out. Evans has written much about newspaper design and writing over the years and his work is always valuably instructive and full of ideas about how to write more effectively.

The blog values one particular Evans’ example which it has quoted endlessly to staff, clients and students. Someone decides to set up a fish shop and asks for advice about the sign he wants to put on the shop. His first idea is ‘fresh fish sold here’. Evans says the response should be as follows: drop the fresh because you would hardly be selling fish that wasn’t fresh; drop the here because there’s fish in the window; and, drop the sold because it’s obviously a shop.

Between Kellaway, Orwell and Evans you should get enough advice to be a very good writer. The blog, unfortunately, can’t advise you on how to get your corporate, public sector and other employers or clients to drop the claptrap and obfuscation because, while most of them wouldn’t admit they couldn’t pilot a plane or build a nuclear reactor, few of them will admit they are not the world’s most gifted executive communicator.