Speak plainly — and carry a big red pen

Posted & filed under Life, Work.

redpenI hate the word “facilitate.”

Most editors, I think, have their pet peeves. This is one of mine.

I went to journalism school, where students were clubbed on the head routinely with the commandment to use plain language, to resist infection by whatever virus of jargon was being passed around at a school board meeting (educational outcomes, standards-based teaching) or coughed out by a corporate consultant (leverage, outside the box, actionable item, incentivize).

If you wrote words like that in an assignment, the professor would smote them with a violent scratch of red ink.

I don’t mean to say all jargon is worthless. Within certain fields, a word such as “facilitate” carries a certain nuance. To “facilitate” a discussion isn’t quite the same as “leading” it. It is, I think, intended to be less presumptuous. That’s what I’m told, though part of me still doesn’t buy it.

Those crusty old journalism professors did know something about communicating. They knew that clarity comes from using words people know and understand. Why couldn’t we just say so-and-so was “guiding” the discussion?

But there’s a worse problem. And that is using puffed-up words and trendy phrasings to mask the fact that you don’t really have anything at all to say. It’s what I call a “Styrofoam” sentence, one you can poke your finger right through — and there’s nothing there.

“Today we will leverage the written word to help you overcome your communication challenges.¬¬¬¬”

Stuff like that. Whatever that means? Don’t do that.

When you are writing, stop and consider any jargon. Ask:
•    Does this term really mean anything at all?
•    If so, is it a familiar word outside of my specialized field?
•    Will the person I’m trying to reach (a customer or a journalist, say) grasp what I’m talking about?
•    Can the same thing be said with a simple, ordinary word?

And if removing the jargon causes you to think, “Gee, that doesn’t sound as important as it did before; it just sounds like ‘duh’,” well, then you cross out the whole sentence and move on to whatever it is you really need to say.

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