A Writer’s Exploration: Own Your Words

A topic that has come to bother me lately is the usage of passive language. Okay, I will admit it – it annoys me. Equally annoying is the avoidance of owning a documented statement, denying it in order to cater to a specific audience. But this isn’t just about my perception on owning language, it’s the perception by the audience of the communicator and the organization they represent.

When I read a line in a bulk corporate email such as “We encourage you to review your account to confirm there may not be any conflicting or otherwise questionable activity, if so, please contact us so we may be able to help you,” I cringe. What is so difficult about telling the audience, in a respectful manner, “Please check your account and contact us if there is an error, we will work with you to fix it.” Give reason, be forthcoming; avoid becoming an insipid spineless messenger.

It’s sad, I see this passive language everywhere – politics, business-to-customer communications, within organizations, legal and financial documents, and so on. What does it say about the direction our culture has taken? My gut instinct swears it is contributing to a downward spiral of lower educational standing along with other decreases of rank and glamour on a global scale. Now I may appear to be overreaching, in fact, I know I am – I tend to look at issues from both extremes of an argument in my own process of narrowing them into mid-ranged rational points of view. This applies just as much to a political stance as it does to grammar. And my gut tells me, because it has nothing better to do than play truth-seeker, perpetuators of passive language make the group they represent appear soft and unable to commit to an action or thought process. That alone makes the group vulnerable to submissive defeat in a competitive environment. Communicators need to be conscious of this at all times.

We live in a capitalistic democracy, here in America, and therefore an element of Darwinism sits at the foundation of how our country operates. Competition drives our economy and our politics, and communication plays a critical role in their facilitation. When I hear the current panel of presidential candidates unable to answer a question directly, I automatically lose respect for them. I am sure I can speak for the population in that we do not want to hear a candidate beating around the bush, backpedaling, or denying they said something has been well documented. Mitt Romney’s latest backpedaling about the Blunt Amendment was astounding, when first asked in an interview he said government had no business in the privacy of a couple’s home, then asked about that stance less than a day later, he claimed he misunderstood the question as he pandered to the party lines. Really?

Owning your words is a powerful stance. No one can take away their meaning or interpret them as anything but what they were intended. Great leaders do this well, whether they are individuals or whole organizations. So my advice to everyone reading this, and please share it with your friends – kill ambiguity, do not take a passive approach to deflect blame or shift responsibility, just say what you mean. And prepare yourself to stand by your words.

A Writer’s Exploration: Wordiness and the Lack of Self

Wordiness is ubiquitous. It appears in emails, Facebook status updates, blogs, memos, newsletters, bulletins, tabloids, signage, packaging … I am sure you get the picture. It is often a result of not mastering the language, not taking the time or knowing how to wordsmith, not knowing the true definitions of words. It comes from our K-12 education in which our English teachers encouraged us to dress up our otherwise simplified and direct prose with flowery language and ornamentation. Make it colorful. Make it dramatic. Make it superficial!

I don’t blame the perpetuators of wordiness for their origins, but I do wonder if they ever consider how it reflects on their being. I’m not exactly going existential here, though a parallel could be drawn by anyone insisting on that level of depth. Your self, my self, the collective self of the population at large, is reflected in everything we do and say, essential to our personalities and the personae we are perceived by.

The careless overuse of words, particularly descriptive and melodramatic language, creates a persona comprising a lack of concision, blurred clarity, a deficit of directness, and unnecessary complexity. I am intentionally going way over the top with wordiness as I espouse this idealized concept I just created on the fly earlier this morning. Or, simply put, I was intentionally wordy in my adoption of this new concept to illustrate the point. One’s true character is mired by these complexities much like viewing their aura through a kaleidoscope and not the naked third eye. Exhausted yet?

An exercise in extreme anti-wordiness

I recently wrote a short story using no descriptive language – no adjectives, no adverbs, no dialogue, though a rare exception was permitted for describing time transitions – as an exercise for my MFA writing workshop. It forced me to consider how I would convey mood, environment, and appearance through carefully selected nouns and verbs. Each meticulously selected word took on a new power and stronger meaning. After I shared it with my workshop group, I learned from their feedback that I had crafted an effective suspenseful and vivid story with zero descriptions. It was a worthwhile challenge that I will employ regularly moving forward.

I urge anyone battling their wordiness demons to try this exercise too. You will find your true self in the process.

Please share your thoughts on this below. I am always interested in what others think.