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The Art And Science Of Clear Writing

large sign for The World Bank Group on the side of a building
photo by Haydn Blackey

Soon after I began my career at Palisades Hudson, I sat down to help a colleague draft an article for our firm’s newsletter.

I dutifully jotted down notes, more or less verbatim, and then immediately got online to look up all the terms I didn’t know. At the time, that list included “equities,” “fixed-income investments,” “large-cap” and “ETF.” It was a brave new world for an English major whose main prior exposure to finance had been consolidating her student loans. And until you understand what someone is saying, it is hard to ask useful questions.

Was my colleague trying to confuse me or make me feel inferior? Absolutely not. But in any profession, “terms of art” – or, in a more critical vein, jargon – become a handy shortcut for communicating with other people who do what you do. Whether you work in medicine or academia or engineering, the language you use with your colleagues is apt to end up littered with terms that would leave outsiders confounded.

Using jargon with other professionals in your area isn’t actually a problem, most of the time. The problem arises when you try to communicate to an outside audience and you discover you can’t turn the jargon off.

In May the World Bank’s chief economist, Paul Romer, was stripped of management responsibilities largely due to his efforts to improve researchers’ written communications, both internal and external. Bloomberg reported that Romer asked his staff for short, succinct emails and presentations. He also announced he would not approve any publication in which the word “and” constituted more than 2.6 percent of the overall word count and created scatter plots of noun-to-verb ratios in existing publications.

Brevity can be useful. The classic text “The Elements of Style,” by William Strunk Jr. and later expanded by E.B. White, famously urges writers to “Omit needless words.” But tone matters too, and researchers told Bloomberg that Romer’s messages were often curt and abrasive. Romer, for his part, expressed surprise at what he saw as staff members’ defensiveness in the face of his efforts to make the World Bank’s communications clearer.

From my outside perspective, it seems Romer took a wrongheaded approach to solving a real problem.

In 2015, Stanford University’s Literary Lab identified a shift in the language World Bank reports employed. The study coined the term “bankspeak” to describe text that lost clarity through self-referential jargon, “detached from everyday language.” If you read a few of the samples the Stanford study includes, it doesn’t take long to run up against vague terms and a wash of passive voice that often makes the prose challenging for a noneconomist to follow.

What fascinates me most about this story, though, is Romer’s attempt to apply a quantitative, formula-driven approach to something as inherently subjective as written communication. Romer has been frank about the fact that writing does not come easily to him. He has dyslexia; as an undergraduate he majored in math and physics, considering himself someone “good with math but not with words.” But since a major part of an economist’s work involves communication, Romer has dedicated himself to improvement.

Math and language are indeed different, though, and approaching language as if it is math can lead to overly rigid formulas like Romer’s 2.6 percent rule. Romer himself noted that the limit was a “gimmick” he used to show his staff that he was serious about good writing. But it is unclear that such quantitative measures would have actually helped, even if Romer had more time to implement them.

In truth, rules in writing are more frequently rules of thumb. For instance, many style guides and teachers (not to mention Clippy, the bane of ‘90s Microsoft Word users) warn writers away from employing the passive voice. But outright forbidding it in every circumstance doesn’t make sense. Instead, writers should carefully ask why “Mistakes were made” is better than “Charles made mistakes” in a particular case, and lean toward the latter if possible.

Romer’s 2015 blog post, “Clear Writing Produces Clearer Thoughts,” illustrates how far someone with a bent for math can take a formulaic approach. Romer created the formula H(t)→W{A(t+1),H(t+1)} to describe the process of clear writing. Though he explained the formula thoroughly in the post, he evidently missed the inherent irony in resorting to a formula to discuss the merits of clear, jargon-free prose. “Treat this as a creative process,” he urged simultaneously. “Don’t worry about whether there are any rules you have to follow.”

I don’t mean to pick on Romer. After all, I’m a writer, not an economist. But his partial ouster at the World Bank offers an excellent object lesson for a point he himself tried to make: When writing, form matters as much as content.

The incident reminded me of the fascinating “Up Goer Five” phenomenon of a few years ago. The popular web comic “xkcd” attempted to explain the blueprints of the Saturn V rocket using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in English. A variety of science and technology professionals wanted to try the same exercise, especially after geneticist Theo Sanderson created a text editor that automatically flags out-of-bounds words. (“English,” for instance, is no good.) Try it for yourself or browse others’ efforts, and you can see the ways in which describing something complicated simply is both challenging and rewarding.

Similarly, the Bank of England recently analyzed the style of Dr. Seuss in an effort to produce clearer writing. Obviously we don’t need to talk about inflation exclusively in rhyming couplets – though if Lin-Manuel Miranda is free, it couldn’t hurt – but it is important to think about who will eventually read your writing and why.

Clarity in writing matters. In economics and other financial spheres, readers outside the industry may give up on trying to stay informed when they routinely encounter impenetrable writing. Worse, some may suspect that an opaque communicator is actively trying to deceive them. Even if Romer’s methods were misguided, the pursuit of clearer and more accessible communication was an admirable goal. His peers would do well to consider asking professionals more comfortable with words than numbers for help in making sure they are saying what they want to say.

Administrative Manager Amy Laburda, who is based in our Stamford, Connecticut office, is the editor of the firm’s most recent book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth, as well as the co-author of two of its chapters. She was also the co-editor of our firm’s previous book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

The views expressed in this post are solely those of the author. We welcome additional perspectives in our comments section as long as they are on topic, civil in tone and signed with the writer's full name. All comments will be reviewed by our moderator prior to publication.

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One Response to "The Art And Science Of Clear Writing"

  • Henry Stimpson
    June 15, 2017 - 11:20 am