Thursday, November 10, 2011

Does your prose mean anything?

I’ve chosen an example – not a particularly bad one – of the sort of writing that tumbles onto the page in business reports without the writer or the reader stopping to think whether it means anything. It all sounds, well, businessy, which is why the writer can get away without thinking about what he is writing and why the reader probably doesn’t take much notice either. This came from a report I was editing yesterday:
"Slowing US economic growth is starting to impact trend levels"
The reader will get something from this: a vague idea that slowing US growth is having an unwelcome effect. But that doesn’t really tell anyone anything – at least, not anything worth paying money for. Even if you knew which industry was under discussion, you wouldn’t be any wiser. So, what’s wrong?

First, there’s our old friend “impact” used as a verb. This term means something in dentistry, when a growing tooth (usually a wisdom tooth) pushes into another. Impacted molars are painful. In business, ‘to impact’ means ‘to have some sort of effect, probably unwelcome’. Is that the kind of insight that’s going help your reader with his next million-dollar investment?

And what is being ‘impacted’? ‘Trend levels’. All that is required to reduce this phrase to a collection of random syllables is to consider (which the writer clearly didn’t) what those two words actually mean.

‘Level’, as an adjective, means ‘at a constant elevation’. As a noun, it means a point of elevation. A ‘trend’, on the other hand, is a direction of motion. How can a fixed point have a direction of motion? The simple solution is to remove the word ‘levels’, but then we need to know what trends are being affected. The writer doesn’t say (and take my word for it, he didn’t give a clue anywhere in the surrounding paragraphs).

This all suggests that slowing growth is bad for business, which is hardly an insight. The writer wants to imply that the rate of growth in that business is going to slow down, but that’s a frighteningly specific thing to say if you haven’t got the figures or the arguments to support it. By using the vague phrase “impact on trend levels”, he is hoping to avoid making statements he can’t back up without revealing the nakedness of his analysis.

Moral: If the words sound right, you can often get away without saying anything (unless I'm your editor*).

*Not just me. There are plenty of other good editors out there, but business writers don't often employ them.

1 comment:

  1. What an excellent and outstanding post love to see this kind of post you are doing the lovely job glad to see this it was more helpful and informative. The doing your homework is useful blog.