Thinkamisms on writing

Legal Dictionaries, by Leonid Dzhepko on Wikipedia

On the latest Back to Work, Dan and Merlin talked about writing in detail, or in their words “the blight of buzzwords, jargon, and douchespeak writ large”, which I’m sure was done with ironic effect.

For the past few months, while building up the posts on this blog and reading other blogs out and around on the internet as well as ‘readings’ and other textbooks for university, I’ve asked the question: why can’t people just write things in plain English?

Rather than take a roundabout approach with multitudes of ‘large words’ crammed into the paragraph, Ruben would often summarise paragraphs of readings for me with a single sentence, which I appreciated as I was often lost in the excess of terminology.

Words mean things

In this particular episode of Back to Work, Merlin and Dan draw an image of two distinct styles of writing. Firstly, writing in clear, simple and direct English where the meaning is easily drawn and easy for anyone to understand; or the type of writing that reverts to using jargon and buzzwords, or even just ‘big words’ like ‘utilise’ instead of ‘use’ which can be considered unnecessary — plus extra effort needed to even type it.

Merlin and Dan discuss this:

Merlin: I think it starts by wanting to sound fancy, and by wanting to sound learned, and by wanting to sound like you know how to say something that's like, proper and impactful.

Dan: Right! And if the people that surround you talk this way, if you don't talk that way, you're going to sound like the fourth grader so you have to start talking that way so that you're not seen as [a fourth grader].

And how.

First of all, I want to start out by saying how much I agree with this because I constantly feel like the proverbial fourth grader among absolutely everyone.

Of the first class of people, I would say that I know some that are able to convey their point succinctly and with mastery through using everyday English. People like Sebastian and Georgie are able to construct amazingly written posts without going too much into the jargon side of things (though this happens occasionally), and even writing engagingly about everyday things that could otherwise have been dry.

I would say that I feel Ruben, however, belongs the latter class as those that enjoy smatterings of jargon and ‘big words’ in their writing, yet he manages it in a way that is engaging, funny and earns praises from the aforementioned Seb. (Why ‘tower’ instead of ‘desktop computer’, for example? Or ‘production machine’? I have actively taken steps to ensure that I only ever use ‘laptop’ or ‘MacBook’ for this reason, strangely.)

Then there are those, like the students of my subjects, that write like the authors of the academic papers that I am made to read, filling it with so many buzzwords that just seem like an attempt to shame you into feeling inferior.

It's a case of wanting to sound... maybe it comes from a good place, maybe you feel like you understand a topic very well and now you just want to say it in a way that makes you sound like, for lack of a better word, an expert.

While I get the sense of utmost inferiority from these latter type writers, at the same time like the typical masochist, this is the type of writing I aspire to, yet know I cannot achieve simply because I don’t get the jargon. Unfortunately I’m no longer good at the former type, and I cannot manage the latter type.

The quote above is the opposite of my problem though — feeling like a novice at something, I want to write about it, and in writing about it, I make myself sound like an idiot because I refer to it in a way which I can understand, but not in a way which technical people would write it.

Is there a fancier word, or a plainer word?

Dan and Merlin also touched on terminology in organisations, and how they dealt with them when they didn’t understand what their superiors meant.

They commented that in those days they didn’t have the capability of Google to simply look up the word that they didn’t understand, yet in my view this can be just as hard with internal acronyms… or simply thinking that it must be an internal acronym without being sure if it is a public acronym or an internal one because there are so many internal ones. No, that didn’t really make sense..

This was my experience at IBM, where acronyms were thrown in my direction without explanation, but because of my nature, rather than asking about them I kept them to myself and tried to work out what they meant.

For example, ‘ETP’ was the project name’s acronym which I worked out soon enough, but I was not always sure if acronyms like ‘UAT’ (User Acceptance Testing) was actually an internal acronym or a publicly known one, such that searching was not always effective because it could be the same letters, but actually different words involved.

Unfortunately this seems to be the same case with trades like networking and even just programming, where acronyms and other terminology have frustrated me endlessly. While it can make conversation more succinct for those in the know, I always walk away feeling like my head is simply stuffed with cotton wool and I can’t understand a thing.

Top photography by Leonid Dzhepko, on Wikipedia.