Monthly Archives: December 2010

Two seconds to a better sentence

James Joyce, who spent years writing "stream of consciousness," unlike most corporate writers.

James Joyce, who spent years writing "stream of consciousness," unlike most corporate writers.

Here’s a little-known fact: our great authors spend a lot of time editing “stream-of-consciousness” literature. James Joyce began Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man prior to 1905. It was published in 1914. His masterwork Ulysses required eight years of refinement. Thomas Pynchon toiled on-and-off for 22 years to bring Mason & Dixon to the page.

I bring up this fact because writers today — especially corporate writers — seem to believe that writing is like tickling the back of your throat — a good way to get everything inside you to spill out. The results are often as pleasant. Here are some recent examples from inside my company:

All work we perform on behalf of our clients from webdesign, digital imaging, packaging and product testing is produced in a manner that is in strict compliance to brand standards.

Companies as large as Ace, Acme and industry leader ABC have partnered with Apogee and we have created numerous custom online applications such as live event experiences that have provided the client and their target audience with a special experience which promotes and extends their brand.

The technology we developed that is embedded in the system securely controls brand standards yet allows our clients’ employees, channel partners, affiliates, business units, etc. to have autonomy in ordering.

If these passages represent the authors’ streams of consciousness, is it any wonder meetings take so long?

Go ahead. Count the prepositions in the passages above. The longest one contains nine! Now count the predicate verbs. Here, let me do it:

All work we perform on behalf of our clients from webdesign, digital imaging, packaging and product testing is produced in a manner that is in strict compliance to brand standards.

Companies as large as Ace, Acme and industry leader ABC have partnered with Apogee and we have created numerous custom online applications such as live event experiences that have provided the client and their target audience with a special experience which promotes and extends their brand.

The technology we developed that is embedded in the system securely controls brand standards yet allows our clients’ employees, channel partners, affiliates, business units, etc. to have autonomy in ordering.

In 106 words there are five predicate verbs consisting of seven words. Wow.

There’s no need to harp again on the modern hatred of verbs. Many others have also written on the effect of emails, texting and the Fast Company culture on corporate communications, where speed is more important than the ability to express our thoughts effectively and powerfully. But none of this explains why our first efforts are so unreadable. My suspicion is that stream of consciousness has nothing to do with it. Rather, it’s our stream of unconscious slavery to weasel words and the “standards” of corporate writing that make our writing seem like so much wretched vomit.

These examples (and many others) prompt the question: why don’t people edit their writing? Just this morning, a colleague submitted this phrase to me:

As a way to illustrate through example our commitment to environmental efforts, we…

With less than a second’s worth of thought, I reworked it to:

As an example of our commitment to environmental efforts, we…

Another second of work produced:

One example of our commitment to the environment is…

Two seconds was all it took me, an average writer, to edit a clumsy clause into a clear if inelegant one. For every email, memo or proposal, you can surely spare that. After all, you’re not William Faulkner. And if you claim you are, please remember the last time you curled up with As I Lay Dying. Yeah, I thought so.

Otto E. Mezzo