10.17.2019

Being Accessible

Many nonfiction books are written by professionals in their field. During their career they may spend a lot of time on planes, and to while away all those stale hours they tend to read books about their profession. That’s why business books are frequently slim volumes: as long as a round trip. For those seat dwellers who once had writing ambitions, perhaps as a college student, a downsizing or retirement offers the opportunity to share the wisdom gained from their job experience.

Although they are not scholars, they are accustomed to the jargon they read, and the cant is repeated during convention speeches and the like. The words and expressions they use are like a tribal code: you have to be in (whatever group) to understand what the heck they’re talking about. Such words have a badge of sorts denoting their obfuscation. One tip-off is the suffix -ment or -tion.

As a translator for the unwashed hoi polloi, I as an editor flag such usages, asking for a clearer word. In reply, a surprising number of times the author will say: “Well, my audience understands what it means.” I hear that and I have to scratch my head. I reply with something like “Don’t you want everyone to read your book?” or “Don’t you want the largest possible audience for your book?” The light goes on; the author responds, “You know, you’re right.”

Do your readers a favor. Assume they are eager to learn but might feel overwhelmed by all the knowledge you have. They are having a hard enough time following your basic argument without encountering technical terms that may wipe out all worth of the entire sentence. When they encounter enough of these word sinkholes, they may decide, “This author is too smart for me,” and put the book down.

To me, the craziest part is that the term is usually just a fancy way of saying a term that the author doesn’t want to use too often. Other times, the author uses it to mask the fact that the sentence is pedestrian if the common term was used, such as mortgage refinance. Business books are filled with such “elevated” terminology—to hide the fact that a lot of business activities are plain dull.

Don’t be like that. Be the author who truly has interesting observations, expressed in plain language that shows the reader how dead right you are. Your repetition of common words doesn’t matter because the reader is constantly being swept up by your new ideas.

Exercise: Comb the manuscript for all industry terms. You’ll find them easily, because they often have four or more syllables. Also make sure that compound words, usually two, are not hard to understand. You’ll find, in cases where you used them in an otherwise banal sentence, that rewriting the sentence will really accomplish your goal of being fresh.

“I've come to learn there is a virtuous cycle to transparency and a very vicious cycle of obfuscation.”
—Jeff Weiner

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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