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Vintage Hate for Corporate Speak

On Writing Well, William Zinsser’s excellent classic writing guide, has a great chapter on the pitfalls of institutional writing. My copy is the 1982 edition, but it reads like it’s hot off the blogosphere:

But just because people work for an institution they don’t have to write like one. Institutions can be warmed up. Administrators and executives can be turned into human beings. Information can be imparted clearly and without pompous verbosity. It’s a question of remembering that readers identify with people, not with abstractions like “profitability,” or with Latinate nouns like “utilization” and “implementation,” or with passive-verb constructions in which nobody can be visualized doing something (“pre-feasibility studies are in the paperwork stage”)

Zinsser refers to even older hate, George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” To make his point, Orwell took this famous passage from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, no yet riches to men of understanding, no yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

and institutionalized it:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account”

Most of the chapter describes Zinsser’s adventures teaching a roomful of school principals to stop sending incomprehensible, “formal” notices home to parents. Good stuff.

Zinsser concludes the chapter with an earnest plea, which I enthusiastically second:

“If you work for an institution, whatever your job, whatever your level, be yourself when you write. You will stand out as a real person among the robots…”

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