Are you getting tangled in your sentences?

“Having read the job application in detail, I now feel competent in all aspects of office work,” someone wrote in a cover email to my friend. Wow – that must’ve been one helluva job application! Simply reading it confers competence in all aspects of office work.  But I don’t think that’s what they meant.

For a start, they didn’t mean job application; they meant job ad. And having read it, they felt sure they could do the job – not every aspect of all conceivable office work. (Inconceivable!) So what happens, to make normally literate people suddenly burble nonsense?

full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing

Something odd happens when people get anxious about writing – usually when they’re writing job applications, bios, their first book. They try to dress up their language and start tripping over their sentences like a kid tripping over the hem when she’s wearing her mother’s dress. Their writing’s in fancy-dress. They need to convey info, but they’re so busy trying to impress the reader that the info gets lost.

Take heart: this is a common problem. The info’s in your head; it needs to be on the page. PhD Comics calls it the most impossible short distance in the history of humanity. The problem isn’t in the info, though, it’s in trying to dress it up. In his Guardian column, Oliver Burkeman notes how,

Academics can be more concerned with showcasing their knowledge; bureaucrats can be more concerned with covering their backsides; journalists can be more concerned with breaking the news first, or making their readers angry.

I’ve written about how we can hide behind super-formal language or reams of jargon. In Burkeman’s same article, he describe’s Pinker’s wonderful approach to prevent that: “joint attention”. (Pinker, in turn, built on the work of Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas, from their book Clear and Simple as the Truth.) Imagine you’re standing next to the reader, looking at a church spire in the distance and pointing it out to them, guiding them where to look: that’s “joint attention”.


You see the Bridge of Sighs, there? Just beyond it on the left is a red-brick building.  Now look between the red-brick building and the golden stone: there’s a darker line, where an alley leads off to the left. That’s the entrance to the Turf Tavern.

You’re not thinking about yourself, you’re thinking about the information. You’re also not thinking “about the reader” – not in the sense that it makes you self-conscious. You’re thinking about what they need to know. As Burkeman writes,

It’s also an answer to an old question: should you write for yourself or for an audience? The answer is “for an audience”. But not to impress them. The idea is to help them discern something you know they’d be able to see, if only they were looking in the right place. Happily, this also makes writing easier.

In other words, don’t try to show off to your reader: tell them stuff. Don’t try to sound like A Proper Writer, all Pooh-Bear Capitals and pride: say what you want to say. If the style needs some spit and polish afterwards, fine. Just get the substance down first. The substance, after all, is what you’re about.

For more advice on style, read…

For more on keeping your reader in mind, read…

And if you’re really bashing your head against the screen, try…

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