This is the first of a two part essay on aspects of good and bad writing. Because it straddles my cultural and business blogs I’ll be posting it in both (it is identical in both).
Commercial and creative writing demand quite different approaches to ambiguity. When Mark Antony hears the news of Cleopatra’s (overstated) suicide he says, with the tragic vaingloriousness that has marked his character throughout Shakespeare’s play
Unarm, Eros, for the long day’s task is done,
And we must sleep.
The double sense of the word “done”, spanning the distance between something that’s complete and something that’s simply over underlines the common tragedy of human aspiration, our dreams of attaching to our lives the potent meaning of a project that might be accomplished, rather than the meaningless drift of our daily efforts cut short by death.
Writers working in poetry or indeed any other kind of creative form relish such ambiguity. It offers a way, to paraphrase TS Eliot’s remark on English Metaphysical poetry, of suggesting in one experience other kinds of experience that might be possible. Or as Geoffrey Hill quoted approvingly from John Crowe Ransome (I’m relying on memory for this)
In the cry of a woman deserted by her lover is a whole history of civilisation.
Language not only helps us connect to each other. It offers a common ground which reaches into the past, evoking associations and ideas that may colour or even transform our sense of the present. Ambiguity, the power of a word or phrase to mean more than one thing, makes these connections. Creative writers embrace this power, nurturing it and shaping it, calibrating its limits in different ways for different contexts, helping us re-imagine the familiar and so experience it differently.
Commercial writing by and large must do the opposite. Commercial writers must assume only limited interest among their audience, and so a very limited attention span. Whatever needs to be said must be said quickly, must have an immediate impact. Ambiguity becomes a distraction, or even something to be feared (summoning unwelcome associations).
Commercial writing also has a very different relationship to cliché. In creative writing cliché is the kiss of death, the dead hand, so to speak, but in commercial writing cliché is often enough a first resort. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Cliché can comfort with the ring of the familiar: give it a little twist and you have the familiar ringing with a different tone, which is a sure way to catch attention quickly. It’s why so much advertising copy trades in reanimated cliché and catchphrases. It’s not art but it is effective. We can enjoy the wit, however trivial the selling exercise, and indeed art writing can play with similar effects.
But there is a vicious side to the comfortable familiarity of cliché, in the way corporate bodies wrap themselves in hackneyed language as though this could mark their status as a serious player.
The worst, most obvious example is the overuse of “passionate”.
Perhaps we should blame Tom Peters, who once suggested that managers should have “A Passion for Excellence”. The book was successful and influential, to the point where managers started doing what they often do, using an apparently attractive word wherever they could as if saying it often enough would make it so.
It’s usually rubbish of course, which is the first problem. Claiming you’re passionate about something is a very big claim, so you had better be sure it will be consistently borne out in your behaviour. A business which on the one hand says it’s driven by shareholder value (as most publicly quoted companies have done in the last twenty years) can’t really expect credulity when it also claims to be passionate about something else: it’s true you could always make an argument that the pursuit of a particular uncompromising excellence in your products was the best way to create shareholder value in the long term, but for the most part in those last twenty years a long term view has not been available.
You can’t claim to be passionate about something if it can be compromised by financial pressures.
There’s also a potential mismatch between the claim and its object. The UK sandwich retail chain Pret a Manger claims to be “passionate about food”, but you can’t say that without evoking the world of haute cuisine. As sandwiches go Pret’s products are of consistently good quality, and I imagine the Pret management is rigorous about maintaining standards, but snail porridge this is not. It’s not even interesting bread (which I imagine would be impractical at this scale). What’s more I can’t imagine any true fanatic would be happy to serve or drink coffee from a paper cup.
“Passionate about food” is intended to position the business as one you can trust for its quality. Such trust depends on the reality of your performance, and the irony is that by and large Pret delivers that performance, but the overclaim about passion undermines its positioning rather than reinforcing it.
This is a common aspect of cliché: people reach for cliché because they think it will be immediately communicative, readily understood, but when we read such a hackneyed claim we’ll usually understand something different, that the business isn’t serious about what it says.
This seems pretty obvious, but it’s an insight that’s made no difference to common practice. “Passion” and “passionate” have spread like a rash across business-speak, to the point where if you really are passionate about something, you need to find a different way of expressing yourself.
The familiarity of cliché is problematic because when we reach for cliché we signal that we’ve stopped thinking about things we need to think about. This is a general problem, as notable in journalism as business writing. For instance journalists writing about someone with cancer often suggest that the person is “battling the disease”, but this is somehow to suggest that disease puts us at war with our bodies, and feeds the general dread about cancer. Having seen cancer treatment close up I can say this is a seriously unhelpful way of thinking about what’s going on. Chemotherapy in particular wreaks a kind of violence on the body, but that’s coming from the cure, not the illness, and a cancer patient usually needs to find a way of accepting that treatment rather than fighting it. “Battling” suggests a false agency as well as a dubious way of looking at ourselves, our bodies. It promotes a misleading idea of what can or should be done in a context where truth can make a difference between life and death.
Because business writing needs to be direct and immediate (given the likely limited interest of any audience) there is only limited scope for creativity: it can’t explore the potentially rich allusiveness available through ambiguity. It can still be alive and vibrant, but this requires as close attention to meaning as creative writing, albeit for a different end. It means being alert to cliché as well as permissible jargon, the latter requiring a constant thoughtfulness about the context in which your words will be read.
This much should be basic, but that thoughtfulness is too often conspicuous by its absence in business communication, which means that instead of drawing your readers closer you can only expect to push them away.
I’ll say some more about the imperatives and problems of context in the next concluding instalment on this subject.