When presenting workshops on writing more effectively, I offer many tricks and tips, but always tell attendees the most important advice I can offer them is to eschew obfuscation.
Regardless of whether I’m speaking to top execs or folks who are in the early stages of their careers, that statement invariably provokes blank stares throughout the room. I didn’t create the phrase, but I adore it, because it’s an ironic way to remind people that clear, simple language always does a better job of communicating.
If you’re scratching your head, don’t feel bad. The two words are unfamiliar to most people. “Eschew” is a verb that means deliberately avoiding something or some act. If you’re allergic to okra, you’ll eschew Cajun food. And “obfuscation” is a noun describing the act of making something confusing or impossible to understand. So when you eschew obfuscation, you’re avoiding the use of language people aren’t likely to understand. Another way to say it is “keep it simple, sweetheart.”
Why do I believe eschewing obfuscation is the most important advice I can provide about writing? Simple. We’re surrounded by obfuscation all the time. We get wrapped up in it. And then it starts to creep into our own writing.
It’s why I believe one of the worst enemies of clear, understandable writing is higher education. You’d think that a college composition course (or a high school senior Honors English class) would produce people who can write more effectively and communicate their messages in more compelling ways. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case.
Students are taught to use the academic style of writing. Very formal, built upon a certain structure, guided by hundreds of rules which cannot be violated, it’s the style that’s been the norm in the academic world for decades. The students are coached and chastised until they adopt the preferred style. Don’t use contractions. You simply cannot use the second person. And never start a sentence with a conjunction.
The students couple their fear of those rules with a desire to sound as smart as possible. So they write long, complex sentences studded with semicolons and choked with clauses. They wear out their thesauruses, desperately seeking four-syllable words they can use to express their two-syllable thoughts. (Yeah, you did it, too.) So instead of trying to present their newfound wisdom clearly and cogently, the students embrace obfuscation.
That wouldn’t be a problem post-graduation, except that the vast majority of these students leave school believing the academic style is the normal, compulsory way to write. It is normal and compulsory in the academic world … but nowhere else. And that makes sense, because once we’re out of school, we’re no longer writing to impress professors. We’re trying to communicate with co-workers, supervisors, prospects, clients, vendors, and other mere mortals.
But we’re receiving emails that plead “the brewed beverage receptacle is demonstrating a skew toward the absence of its essential contents” when the writer just wanted someone to make more coffee. We’re “utilizing” when we should be “using” and “servicing” when we should be “serving.” We’re receiving sales proposals worded like the Terms & Conditions section you didn’t read when you downloaded that software update. We’re hiring really smart people and struggling to understand why they can’t communicate with each other.
Instead of taking 30 seconds to send an email reading “I’d like to meet with you late next week,” we agonize for 10 minutes and end up with “I am desirous of an opportunity to address this face-to-face and assuming your schedule is unburdened, have availabilities in the latter half of the week beginning …”
The more education a profession demands, the more obfuscation you’ll find. Attorneys, accountants, and medical professionals are among the worst offenders — and they frequently wonder why their clients fail to follow their advice. It’s simple. They can’t take advantage of your expertise because they don’t understand what you’ve recommended they do.
Please don’t thinking I’m blaming teachers and professors for this lack of clarity. It truly isn’t their fault. It’s all about their students misunderstanding that the style learned in classrooms and lecture halls is the way we’re all supposed to write everything. It’s not.
Whether you’re writing an email to a colleague, preparing a proposal for a prospective customer, or developing an article to educate others about some aspect of your area of expertise, don’t fall into the trap. Use plain, everyday English. Write short sentences. Choose familiar words. If a sentence contains a semicolon or three commas, break it into smaller sentences. Instead of trying to impress the reader with your brilliant command of formal grammar and strict syntax, write so they’ll actually understand what you’re trying to say.
In other words, eschew obfuscation.
Scott Flood creates effective copy for companies and other organizations. His guide to evaluating freelance creative talent, The Smarter Strategy for Selecting Suppliers, can be downloaded at http://sfwriting.com.