Talking straight

June 18, 2012

Frankly speaking, there’s an incredible amount of nonsense that gets written in Brussels. Whether you call it ‘Brussels English’,Eurobabble’ or ‘EU speak’, the big problem with using jargon in your writing is that it’s incomprehensible and confusing. And if your writing is incomprehensible and confusing the chances are it won’t be read, and is therefore not very useful.  

Which is a shame.

Of course, being ‘useful’ is something us consultants worry about a lot, but really – whatever job you do – there’s no point writing anything that no one will read. Ever.

So, why do we do use jargon?

Here are three main jargon traps I can think of.

1)    Familiarity. If you’ve been in Brussels for a bit you’ll have noticed that, after a while, the jargon people use in our little bubble starts to sound kinda ok. Just the other day I caught myself, with no sense of irony, using the word ‘roadmap’. Shocker. It’s a ‘plan’.

2)    Showing off. Don’t fool yourself that over-complicating your work with protracted verbiage will make you sound brainier – or vice versa.   Using clear and simple language does not make you a simpleton. I promise.

3)    Not understanding. A bit of soul searching is required here.  How many times, be honest, have you tried to cover up feeling not 100% sure about something you’re writing about by fudging it with an overused, meaningless term that seems to cover all bases?  DON’T DO IT. Have a proper think, work out what you want to say in your head, and then start writing.

Be mindful of your choice of words. Use ‘real life’ expressions you’d use back home (or that you learnt in school if you’re not a native English speaker), not the inhuman rubbish you’d expect to find in the Official Journal

The pitfalls are everywhere, but happily help is at hand. I was delighted (and, yes, just a little bit surprised) to discover that the European Commission – a traditional jargon stronghold – is itself fighting back, valiantly putting together this nifty  ‘Jargon Buster’ tool. I urge you to take a peek.

Life beyond jargon

Once you’ve clawed your way out of the jargon trap you’re already on your way to producing some really good writing. Here are a few tips for penning prose that stands head and shoulders above the average – be it a report, note, blog post or even a simple email.  It’s by no means an exhaustive list.

  • Put the important stuff first. Don’t let readers wait until the end of the sentence (or even paragraph) to discover the crux of what you want to say. The chances are they’ll lose interest and give up on you. Unless you’re writing a spy novel there really is no reason to keep things under wraps in the hope of a grand finale.  Be upfront.
  • Be economical Cut out needless repetitions, longwinded expressions and meaningless words (‘basically’ is a repeat offender).

So,

Instead of  As a consequence of   try Because                     

Instead of  In order to try To

Instead of  Fully complete try Complete

Instead of At the present time try Now

Instead of  Prior to try Before                                                            

And so on.                                                 

  • Consider structure  Aim for sentences of around 15-20 words on average, but be sure to have some variety. A nice mix of long and short sentences will give your writing a decent flow and make it much easier to read.  Keep your paragraphs shortish too – aim for five lines if you’re writing for the web. Again, it’s about considering the reader: there’s nothing worse than a screen full of text and no white spaces to give eyes and brain a metaphorical tea break.
  • Separate your ideas Try and stick to one idea per sentence – and one theme per paragraph. Otherwise the reader (or you) might lose their way.
  • Punctuate My personal hero, Lynne Truss, illustrates the fundamental importance of punctuation for conveying meaning  in her wickedly funny book – Eats, Shoots and Leaves – with this  memorable example:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing. 

Now that’s something to think about.

  • Be active, not passive There’s something a bit shady and underhand about passive sentences with their anonymous participants. They can lead to much confusion.

So, You should meet Rich at the airport sounds a lot better than Rich should be met at the airport (Rich stands a much better chance of getting a lift in the first sentence, anyway).   

Finally – and most important of all:

  • Put the reader first As you’re writing and editing, never lose sight of who you’re writing for and how what you are saying relates to them.

It sounds like a lot to remember – and it is. Writing clear and readable prose is heaps harder than writing murky nonsense. But it’s an investment worth making. Writing is meant for reading – so make sure you’re getting read.

Catherine

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A blog on politics, policy, public affairs and communications in Brussels and the European Union. The blog is written by the team at Fleishman-Hillard in Brussels. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect those of the company or its clients.

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