25 August 2011

If you’re writing, you’re writing

I’m a huge fan of plain English. Many writers aren’t.

Some people think that plain English is about dumbing down and removing the personality from a piece of writing. I think quite the opposite.

For me, plain English is about finding a way to say what you have to say in the clearest, most appropriate way possible. It’s about being articulate.

Steve Jobs says goodbye

Yesterday, Steve Jobs resigned as Apple’s CEO. Big news everywhere. He’s one of the few people who can honestly claim to have changed the world.

And yet reading his resignation letter, you wouldn’t know it. You can read the full letter here on the BBC website.

In just five short, understated paragraphs, Jobs said what he needed to say.

He could have talked about his ill health, but we knew about that. He could have talked about his incredible, one-of-a-kind success story, but it was neither necessary nor appropriate.

What Jobs told the world was what the world needed to know. And that’s the crux of writing plain English.

Read, write, watch, listen

The other plain English reference came over at Shawn Blanc’s website, where Shawn published an article about the much-used term, ‘consuming content’.

Specifically, he talked about how he uses his computer and his iPad:

On my computer I do create things — sometimes it is content for my website, but sometimes it is something else. On my iPad I don’t “consume content”. I read, I watch, I share, I learn.

The idea of content is familiar to me. I work in a team of writers who aren’t called writers at all. We are content managers.

We’re called that because we do far more than write. We devise marketing campaigns, build wireframes for websites and edit copy that already exists. All of which, you could argue, involves content. But then what is content? In our case, it means not design and not web development. We do all the other stuff.

The problem with the idea of ‘consuming content’ is its incredible vagueness. Without context, it is meaningless.

If you are consuming content, what are you doing? Reading a book? Watching a film? Listening to music?

The term provides so little information that you might as well say nothing at all. It’s an empty, catch-all statement that leads only to further questions. What kind of content? What are you actually doing?

Like Shawn, I think we should all just tell it like it is. If you’re reading, you’re reading. If you’re writing, you’re writing. If you’re watching a film, you’re watching a film.

Plain English is about remembering that on the other end of every conversation is another person. It’s a writer’s job to make that conversation as pain-free as possible.

That’s not to dumb down or cut corners. It’s to master an art form.

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9 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Great post, Iain. Fully agree! (Well Said!)

    One thing – did you mean your link to go to his January resignation letter?  (Or is there another one from yesterday’s announcement that you meant to link to?)

    Either way, as you say, his letter says it all in a no-nonsense way.

    K

  2. Anonymous

    Better to be a nit than to have a nit (or two) :)

  3. Amen to all of the above! In the context of a potentially humiliating resignation, Steve Jobs’s brevity is not just smart, but classy.

    The traditional Quakers actually took a stand against “flowery” speech for spiritual reasons. For them, embellished truth was suspect.  

    When it comes to creative writing, I’d only add that there has to be a latitude among styles. Sometimes a wordy style is necessary to capture  a character’s state of mind, for instance.

  4. And Steve Jobs passed away yesterday…what a loss!

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