The dense corporate-speak of the business professional and the angst-filled musings of a teenager after a breakup may seem like opposite ends of the bad writing spectrum, but they have more in common than you might think.
In my work as a developmental editor, I’ve noticed business writing sometimes suffers from the same problem as sappy poems. My clients face this problem because all writers face it; it’s a function of how the human mind works. Accounting for this habit of mind — through revision — is one of the core skills it takes to write pieces other people want to read.
First, bring to mind something that happened today, or yesterday. If you had a fight with your partner, maybe you remember the grating, sarcastic tone of voice they used — or you used. If you barely avoided a car accident, you might feel a rush of adrenaline all over again. If your team won the championship, perhaps you can close your eyes and replay that final shot like a movie. You probably have vivid sensory memories about the incident.
Now, think of something from the past you daydream about often. It might be that horrible breakup that inspired you to write a marble composition book full of corny poems. It could be the 100th birthday party for your beloved grandmother. Try to see in your mind’s eye, the people, what they were wearing, the rooms you were in.
In both of those cases, those events feel alive. Although you undoubtedly don’t remember exactly what happened, sensory detail is encoded in your memory. And you enhance the memory every time you retrieve it, building a web of layered associations that grows thicker every time you bring the scene to mind.
If you write an account of one of these events, the first draft will almost certainly fail capture the sensory or emotional detail in words. Instead, what you write will be, in essence, reminders — triggers for your memory and network of associations.
Readers can’t be reminded of an experience they didn’t go through or a thought they never had. You have to find words that evoke something for the reader.
Coming from the teenager, this imprecise use of language might look like: “I love your face/It makes my heart race.” This line doesn’t come close to making a reader empathize with the intense, hormone-juiced emotions of a first love.
For business writing clients, the equivalent mistake is the use of jargon, shorthand for concepts that the writer understands but the reader might not. Sometimes, a writer will use jargon that colleagues would understand, but I’ve also seen people use turns of phrase unique to them. For example, I was helping a business owner develop web content. In all his draft copy, he advised his clients not to “leave their business on autopilot.”
After talking to him and studying his business, I got the gist of what he meant: He wanted to help entrepreneurs who were uncomfortable talking about money, and therefore not deliberate in their financial choices. He was almost certain not to connect with the very people who most needed his services.
“Autopilot” was like, “I love your face/It makes my heart race.” There’s not enough meaning in the phrase for the prospective client to resonate with.
How does a writer move away from jotting down memory triggers and begin finding language that can transmit meaning to someone else?
It’s all in the revision.
Jotting down the memory triggers isn’t wrong. It’s actually the first step. You write privately.
The next step is to wrap what you know or remember in specific, evocative words that evoke emotion or memory in readers.
Here are two tips for doing that:
- Spell it out. I helped the consultant use words and describe scenarios that more explicitly named his clients’ pain, such as, “You’re afraid to retire, because you don’t want your children fighting over the business.” That led organically to more compelling descriptions of his credentials, which consisted of specific expertise in counseling founders of privately-held companies. And then, of course, the solution: “Don’t just let things run their course. I can help you navigate these uncomfortable situations and protect your assets.”
- Metaphors are most powerful when they have three components: sensory, emotional, and intellectual. “Autopilot” is a metaphor. It likens the way a person might operate a business to a pilot who delegates part of the job of flying a plane to a computerized system. It refers to something a reader has probably heard of and understands intellectually. Few people will have a sense association with autopilot; you don’t visualize one when you hear the word. And there’s no appropriate emotional component either. (If anything, autopilot might even conjure a positive emotion, not a negative one; autopilot usually works, after all.) Imagine if, instead, this author had said these business owners operated their businesses like zombies.
If that sounds like a lot of work, well, sometimes it is. Your audiences will appreciate your efforts. A class, writing group, developmental editor, or beta readers can help along the way.
By expressing your ideas with more precision, using descriptive, evocative language your reader can understand, you will graduate from cryptic, corny poet to convincing author.