We love to condemn the use of jargon and buzzwords almost as much as we love overusing them. Most jargon and buzzword-bashing lists, however, don’t help readers distinguish among words they should probably avoid entirely, those they should currently avoid in a particular type of writing (tech writing, business writing), and those they can continue to use with care.

Jargon is the special and often necessary terminology of a particular profession or field. It’s usually a problem only when inconsiderate writers choose to unleash too much jargon at one time or use it on the wrong readers. Often, though, after a new term is developed for good reason (e.g. Web 2.0), both ongoing technology development and marketing cause an explosion in usage, and the term soon has too many meanings to be used without qualification.

What’s a buzzword? For some it’s just popular jargon. For others it’s a word, such as “seamless,” that becomes part of a popular industry message and is soon overexposed. For still others, it’s any overused word or phrase, such as “bottom line.” Take a look at Wikipedia’s list of buzzwords and note that it’s a mix of jargon, tired metaphors, clichés, and everyday words that had the misfortune to become popular. As with people, the popularity of a word can have a significant downside.

The following terms appeared on two recent lists, one on The Industry Standard (thanks Elaine) and one on Network World. I hope my categories will get you thinking—and get you to stop believing that as soon as you read one person’s list of jargon or buzzwords you suddenly have to stop using them. As always, your goal is to write clear sentences for a specific audience. Make sure your readers will understand the jargon you use, and start paying attention to the evolution of words to determine when they stop having a clear and specific meaning for your readers.

Still useful terms that need to be defined in context

  • Web 2.0
  • Web 3.0
  • SOA
  • blended threat

Otherwise useful terms that are no longer helpful in tech writing thanks to constant abuse (though companies often insist on using them)

  • seamless
  • paradigm shift
  • solution (except in the construction “this software is the solution to your problem”)
  • disruptive (except in the construction “your behavior is disruptive to company morale”)
  • unique, revolutionary (unless backed by convincing evidence)
  • easy to use (unless backed by convincing evidence)

Terms that never had a chance of being useful

  • prosumer
  • value add
  • solution-oriented (applies to most “oriented” constructions)

A mapIn the age of short blog posts and tweets, it’s easy to get in the habit of jotting down thoughts and calling it writing. While some bloggers and tweeters can dash off brilliant prose, this is a dangerous and inefficient approach for most of us, especially for those who aren’t ruthless editors of their own writing.

I like the informal, conversational nature of social media and don’t expect it to be always grammatically correct or particularly artful. But informal and conversational don’t mean poorly structured, unclear, and inappropriate. And most writing projects require more than a scrap of information, a clever reference, and a bit of humor. They often have multiple goals (e.g. to inform and entertain the readers while convincing the boss of competence). They require assessing the readers’ knowledge and point of view and choosing the appropriate structure, style, and details. And they require setting out some form of promise – a point to argue or explain, for example – and then delivering on that promise.

Doing this without some serious thinking ahead of time is hard. Many people prefer to write a first draft using little more than instinct, believing they can then turn the draft into great writing. But most of us don’t have the stomach – or the mind – for it. First, there’s the ticking clock screaming, “Move on! There are plenty more projects where that one came from.” Then there’s the barely conscious nag: “It made sense when I wrote it, and it still makes sense.” “I worked hard. No way I’m trashing these two pages of rambling.” “This is really clever. It’s got to stay.”

Taking notes – jotting down ideas without writing sentences or committing to an order – may seem like a waste of time, especially for shorter projects, but it’s by far the fastest and most direct path to producing writing that’s clear, concise, well organized, and appropriate for the intended readers. Notes help you produce a much stronger first draft, making it faster and easier to achieve the level of quality you want or need.

General tips:

  • When taking notes, have fun and be creative. Stop thinking of it as a time-consuming chore.
  • Take time to analyze who your readers are: what they know and how they feel about the topic. This knowledge will guide you as you develop the structure and style for the piece.
  • Work in a non-linear fashion – bubble mapping is useful. This eliminates the tendency to start with the first idea that comes to mind, which is rarely where the reader needs to start. Then use the map to create an outline, selecting the right details in the right order for the readers.

Renovating my dilapidated eyesore of a shed into an art studio has me thinking about different kinds of writing projects.

An essay, novel, short story, or poem is like a new construction custom home. You invest all the thought, time, and energy you can to get it right. Many rules exist – grammar, punctuation, spelling, building codes – but even working within these rules, there’s tremendous room for creativity, for creating something stunning or groundbreaking, something with lasting impact. Many non-fiction books are written with this same commitment.

News reports, contributed articles, case studies, and press releases are like new construction tract homes, slapped together under a deadline. They follow the same basic rules but also follow a very limiting set of additional parameters (structural components, jargon, repeated floor plans and facades) to make them easier and less expensive to produce. They can be useful and even important, but they are often of poor quality, making the writing hard to consume and the buildings subject to a variety of problems, such as leaks. Most unfortunately, many writing projects that have no deadline are written as if they do.

Next comes editing someone else’s work or adapting a piece of writing for a completely different purpose. Like renovating an older structure, you really don’t know what you’re going to encounter until you start tearing things apart. If you’ve watched contractors doing this, you realize they often have to improvise. They keep key goals in mind – correct size, level, sufficient support, leak prevention, and building codes if there will be an inspection – and then cut, hammer, tape, strap, cheat, shim and caulk to achieve their ends. “Whatever works” is the guideline, and this is often the case with editing projects. Last week I was asked to do a last-minute proof of a press release I’d drafted weeks earlier and that had gone through numerous revisions. Unfortunately, some introductory information had been taken out, so out of the blue, a product was mentioned with absolutely no description or context. At first I thought the only good solution was another major revision, but since there wasn’t time, I got on the phone with the account director and talked through the problem. As we discussed more and more drastic repairs, I suddenly saw I could quickly introduce the product early on with just an added phrase. It certainly wasn’t the best solution, but it eliminated the most jarring effect and met the time constraints. The caulking gun approach.

I think of the kind of writing more and more of us do every day – the short email or blog post – as the equivalent of decorating projects, like putting up shelves or hanging some pictures. These are typically useful projects, but their real importance is the role they play in the overall effect and usability of the décor. We can choose to do these projects fast and sloppy or slow and neat. Is the picture at the right height? Does it hang straight? Are the shelves level and properly spaced? The better we execute on each project, the better the overall effect. It’s the same in writing. Each blog post may be useful in its own way, but the real importance is in the cumulative effect. Which is why execution on each piece matters.

To stretch the analogy just a bit further, in the same way that expensive furnishings and a paint job can obscure construction flaws in a building, interesting content can sometimes overcome weaknesses in structure and sentencing – while tasteless decorating and uninteresting content can make excellent construction irrelevant.

“So what about Tweets?” I ask, as I click over to Twitter to check the stream. It may not be writing at all. It may be poetry. More on this later.

Great advice from Zadie Smith via Jonah Lehrer: “The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer.”

Smith is talking about writing novels and says that “the perfect state of mind to edit your novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go on stage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all of the pieces of dead wood, stupidity, vanity, and tedium are distressingly obvious to you.”

While those of us writing shorter pieces under some form of deadline can’t put pieces away for years – or days – we can still use a few tricks to create some distance from our own sentences so we can try to read them as if someone else wrote them. In brief, anything that keeps you from silently rereading the draft straight through from beginning to end will help overcome the tendency to think, “It made sense when I wrote it and it still makes sense.”

  • No matter how little time you have to write a draft, break the process down into steps: note taking, drafting, taking a break, editing. The longer the break, the better able you’ll be to come back to the draft with an editor’s eye.
  • Develop a personal editing checklist and edit for just one thing at a time. See this checklist on The Writing Wiki.
  • If you didn’t use an outline to write the draft, create an outline from what you wrote. This will help you see the structure instead of getting lost in the flow.
  • Read your draft aloud, have your computer read your it to you, or have someone else read it to you.
  • Read the paragraphs in random order to break up the flow. Examine each one for logic and sentencing.
  • Read the sentences in reverse order starting at the end of the draft.
  • If you write at a computer, print out a draft and read it on paper.

According to the Associated Press, Merriam-Webster recently decided 100 new words were worthy of inclusion in the latest edition of its Collegiate Dictionary. Why so few?

Among the words are pescatarian (a fish-eating vegetarian), infinity pool (an outdoor pool with an edge disappearing into the horizon), dirty bomb, and netroots.

I love these particular words and some of the others cited in the article, but overall the collection seems arbitrary – why these and only these? The explanation included in the article (which I won’t quote since this is an AP story) relies on subjectivity, which is understandable but begs the question of whose experience and resulting subjectivity constitute sufficient authority.

Ah, the pros at Merriam-Webster.

Which brings up the role of dictionaries and to what extent we should be relying on them. If I want to use a common word that hasn’t yet made it into the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, a word such as, uh, conjobulated, am I wrong? Should English teachers redline such usage if my readers understand it?

Since dictionaries often disagree – will the American Heritage Dictionary and the Oxford American Dictionary include the same 100 words? – it’s important not to think of any one dictionary as the arbiter of the words you can use. (And of course there are those who think we shouldn’t be adding any new words or new uses of existing words, but I dismiss these folks as eccentric and unimaginative and relegate them to a parenthetical.)

A useful dictionary evolves over time to reflect how we actually use words – though long publishing cycles mean they live most of their lives out of date. And their real value is not in dictating what words we can use, but as a resource for understanding words we encounter but don’t recognize. That is, they can help us understand what we are reading or listening to, and they can help us build a larger working vocabulary.

Writers, however, need to focus on their readers and the words their readers use and understand. Think about it. What’s more important, being right according to some arbitrary standard or communicating effectively? Both you say? Then which dictionary (or grammar book or language watcher) do you believe?

Instead, be an aggressive reader and listener. If you demand that what you encounter makes sense, then you will refine your understanding of how words – old and new – are used, and you can refer to dictionaries as needed. For words not in your dictionary, search them out on the Internet and try sites like Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary and Urban Word of the Day

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not recommending that you use any word any way you want. Remember Humpty Dumpty. But feel free to enjoy the full richness of our constantly changing language, as long as you take your readers or listeners into account, so you are communicating clearly and effectively whatever your purpose may be.

information_overload

Speaking of being conjobulated, it’s clear that what’s happening offline is happening online as well, as indicated by a growing number of articles about the problems of information overload and multitasking. I’ve collected a few on The Writing Wiki.

This from an article on The New Atlantis:

“In the business world, where concerns about time-management are perennial, warnings about workplace distractions spawned by a multitasking culture are on the rise. In 2005, the BBC reported on a research study, funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, that found, ‘Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.’”

There’s some serious irony in this quote from “Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast” by Matt Richtel:

“The E-Mail Addict feature in Gmail is more of a blunt instrument. Clicking the ‘Take a break” link turns the screen gray, and a message reads: ‘Take a walk, get some real work done, or have a snack. We’ll be back in 15 minutes!’”

Get some real work done in fifteen minutes?

And social media just seem to add to the problem. From Betsy Schiffman in a Wired blog post on Web 2.0 Expo Preview: Torture by Information Overload:

“Now that the first burst of enthusiasm for social networking has died, people are realizing that web 2.0 is actually a huge time sink.

“Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Plaxo may have helped foster community and communication, but they’ve also added immensely to the flow of often-interruptive messages that their users receive, leading to information overload and possibly a nasty internet addiction.”

It’s clear that it isn’t just how much information there is but also the messy way it’s delivered. Facebook and Twitter pump out so much information, I feel I have to check in regularly if I don’t want to miss something important, but by design they display all posts as equal, so I have to look at everything, try in vain to distinguish what might be of value from all the noise, and then follow several links, by which time I’ve lost any momentum I had on a project.

Attempts to adjust workplace habits with 15-minute breaks from email or even email-free days are feeble and don’t account for emergent activity, or for the entrenched attitude that the constant information flow has high value.

What’s needed is a fundamental reevaluation of how we relate to technology, but if this happens, it will likely be the result of a slow self-correcting evolution spurred by profit and nurtured by technology itself in the form of user channels that separate important and unimportant flows and artificial intelligence that learns from profiles and usage patterns how to distinguish important information for the user.

Or maybe it really is my age, and young people growing up in the midst of the flow will give the lie to research conducted by their elders and be just as productive and just as scholarly as any other generation. After all, it’s hard to miss the irony of baby boomers –the first generation to grow up watching far too much television, who were still smart enough and productive enough to lead another major technology revolution – now being worried about the participation of their kids and grandkids in a far less passive technology.

It’s most obvious with non-native speakers of English. Despite knowing more about English grammar than most native speakers and having a broad recognition vocabulary, they often continue to struggle to construct a workable English sentence.

Why?

Here are some excerpts from a 1985 Donald Hall essay in Newsweek titled “Bring Back the Out-Loud Culture.”

“When we stopped memorizing and reciting literature, our ability to read started its famous decline. It was the loss of recitation – not its replacements (radio, film, television) – that diminished our literacy.”

“If when we read silently we do not hear a text, we slide past words passively, without making decisions….”

“In the old Out-Loud Culture, print was always potential speech; even silent readers too shy to read aloud, inwardly heard the sound of words. Their culture identified print and voice. Everyone’s ability to read was enhanced by recitation. Then we read aggressively; then we demanded sense…”

“As children speak poems and stories aloud, by the pitch and muscle of their voices they will discover drama, humor, passion and intelligence in print.”

As children – and adults – speak poems, stories, essays, and even well-written news articles and business reports aloud, they also hear the natural syntax, phrasing, and rhythm of English. They learn it as music, and just as song lyrics float around in the mind ready to be called upon when needed, this memorized syntax and phrasing will sit upon the tongue when we write.

Most people think reading is the best training for writing, but we write with our ear, not our eye. We voice our sentences onto the page, and the more we train our ears, the better – clearer, more powerful, more dramatic, more musical – our sentencing will be. Reading silently can help us become better editors, help us spot what looks wrong on the page. But as Donald Hall suggests, most silent readers “slide past words passively.” They pick up some meaning from the words (rarely demanding sense) but hear none of the power or nuance or even basic correctness. They don’t hear what sounds bad and what sounds good.

That’s why so much business and government writing is so awful. It isn’t that the writers aren’t educated or don’t care enough to take the time to do a good job. They simply don’t have a trained ear. Wrote Russell Baker in How to Punctuate, “When you write, you make a sound in the reader’s head. It can be a dull mumble–that’s why so much government prose makes you sleepy—or it can be a joyful noise, a sly whisper, a throb of passion.” If you can’t hear it, you can’t write it.

Even native-speaking adults can improve their ear for the music of English. It’s never too late. To train your ear, pick the best examples of the type of writing you want to do and read them aloud. Hear the music—the richness and variety in the sentencing. Then start reading all sorts of things aloud, and hear the difference. Hear and see the tangled, twisted sentence. Hear and see the difference between dull and dramatic repetition. Then read your own writing aloud.

Beyond helping us write sentences that are more natural, musical, and correct, reading aloud helps us “read aggressively and demand sense.” Only then will we begin to write the same way, examining our sentences to ensure the words work together efficiently to make sense.

This clarity is all the more important today as busy writers communicate in short emails, brief blogs, and 140-character Twitter bursts, while busy readers attempt to consume far more than they can stomach in a day.

Whether you’re goal is correctness, clarity, or power, reading aloud will help.

Bonus tip: If you write in MS Word, you can have Windows XP or Vista read back your drafts using text-to-speech. This is a great way to proofread drafts and hear mistakes you might miss when reading. I’ve started creating instructions for this in The Writing Wiki, but could use some help.

Here’s a crude example of text-to-speech:

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