On Simplicity, or, ABC
“Managers at every level are prisoners of the notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind. Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking: a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, or too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts.”
-William Zinsser, On Writing Well
Needless to say, this goes on everywhere–not just in the corridors of corporate drudgery. Z nails it. Like, Golgotha nails it. What else can you do when you’ve gotta hit a deadline and you just can’t force your brain to make it happen?
Nothing. You start throwing marshmallows into the air and pray at least one lands toasting distance from the fire.
And what if you don’t have the “talent” of bullcrapping your way through office and other communications? Maybe this is better than having it. Because then you need to either take responsibility for the things you’re responsible for (nice compound clause), or quit. The B+ English major can continue to hide his incompetence behind flatulent verbal smokescreens, sealing his middle management destiny.
Ultimately Zinsser’s sharp observation begs the question of what a simple style is and what it isn’t. Let’s say my memo doesn’t contain a word that’s longer than six letters. Is it stylistically simple? Yeah, probably.
But overwrought style is ultimately subjective, and so it has to be grouped with its distant cousin, hard-core pornography, under Justice Stewart’s evergreen definition: I know it when I see it.
Unlike hard-core pornography, you (and I) might be doing it without realizing we’re doing it.
June 14, 2012