Saturday, July 21, 2007

Finding a voice people can understand

One of the most time-consuming parts of my day job is wading through piles of student essays on midterms and finals. Our students don’t write as well as we would like — most of them can’t write well when they graduated from high school, and with our larger class sizes we have even less contact with them than their high school teacher did.

I am passionate about good writing in every form, whether a 2-sentence e-mail, 1-page memo, or 20-page report. It’s not from my brief foray into journalism (which certainly helped my writing) but from 20+ years in business, initially as an underling and later as a boss.

With lots of college student as employees, I had to emphasize time and time again that they needed to be able to communicate clearly if the money their employer paid them was going to bring it any benefits. Anyone who’s opened a U.S. airline magazine knows the phrase “You get what you negotiate” (Chester Karrass) but I would say “your value is what you communicate.” (The two ideas are consistent, just not identical).

Today a friend forwarded an Oct. 2006 speech on good writing given by John Leo, former US News columnist. It’s really long, but just about everything resonated with my experience.

Leo starts with various examples of bad writing, due to bureaucratic obfuscation, social activism or just plain laziness. Here is but one excerpt:

In plain English, what does it mean when students “achieve a deficiency” or reach a “suboptimal outcome?” It means they failed. A suboptimal outcome is even worse in at a hospital. It means the patient died. The airline industry sometimes speaks of a hull loss. What they mean is that one of their planes just crashed. Here’s more twisted language. Your doorman is now known as an “access controller”, and a receptionist is a “director of first impressions.” Hospital bills can be filled with such language, How about a “thermal therapy unit” (an ice bag) or a “disposable mucus recovery unit”, also known as a box of Kleenex.

HemingwayLeo presents exemplary communications lessons from Hemingway, M.L. King, Wolfe and Lasch, but draws his greatest personal inspiration from John Madden, the everyman (American) football commentator. He refers to Vonnegut’s concept of “background music” — a personalized, human point of view — which for this blog ties back to the comment my earliest reader made about “finding your voice.”

Ironically, conversational writing is seen as a negative in academic research — too informal, atheoretic, imprecise. I’ve been told that my journal papers are “too journalistic” in their writing style: that might mean that the writing is too approachable, but that also might mean that the “what” is not wrapped in the “why” of social science theorizing. (IMHO as long as the theorizing is somewhere in the paper, the language shouldn’t matter, and obviously clearer language makes the research more useful to people in the real world).

My current endeavor is writing an academic book that is both theoretical enough for academics but also appeals to ordinary industry professionals such as communications engineers, telecom entrepreneurs, MIT engineering alumni. In a couple of months we’ll be negotiating with publishers as to how the book should be crafted to serve these conflicting goals, which could just become a matter of hiding the gobbledygook in footnotes.

The only example I’ve seen of such a book — one that is both readable and legitimate in the eyes of academics — is The Man Behind the Microchip, Leslie Berlin’s terrific biography of Robert Noyce. Noyce was the co-inventor of the integrated circuit (with Kilby) and cofounder of both Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, who Berlin argues is most responsible for modern-day Silicon Valley. Like a good historian, Dr. Berlin got her dissertation published by Oxford University Press (my previous publisher). But she got funding from the IEEE and delivered something that can be understood by anyone interested in Silicon Valley. I’ve yet to meet her, but at some point I hope to sit down with her and ask for lessons on how she pulled it off.

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