Consultants of any kind must be able to write well, to document facts clearly, and convey ideas and plans succinctly, unambiguously and persuasively. In my view, except when specific technical terms must be used, everything that can usefully be said can be said using simple language.
Graham Greene – one of my literary heroes
What’s the best prose style for a consultant (assuming that we needn’t consider poetry)? It should:
- Be logically clear
- Use everyday vocabulary
- Consist of short sentences
- Avoid exaggeration
- Be persuasive but not emotional
- Be direct and explicit (avoiding hints, suggestion, implication, and ambiguity)
- Be as brief as possible
- Be complete and coherent
- Avoid cliché
- Avoid jargon
- Not use unexplained acronyms
- Use humour carefully
- Avoid repetition and redundancy, except in an explicit summary
That said, I do like stylish writing from time to time, I just don’t think it’s how a consultant should write in his or her professional role. Take this excerpt from Henry James’ The Ambassadors (1903):
Strether’s first question, when he reached the hotel, was about his friend; yet on his learning that Waymarsh was apparently not to arrive until evening he was not wholly disconcerted. A telegram from him bespeaking a room ‘only if not noisy’, reply paid, was produced for the enquirer at the office, so that the understanding they should meet at Chester rather than at Liverpool remained to that extent sound.
It is wonderfully elliptic, its rambling structure conveying Strether’s hesitant and uncertain thinking, but, if you go by Microsoft Word’s measure of readability (see below) this kind of prose requires a relatively high level of education (not to mention patience).
In contrast, here’s a much easier excerpt from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938):
It was a fine day for the races. People poured into Brighton by the first train; it was like Bank Holiday all over again, except that these people didn’t spend their money; they harboured it. They stood packed deep on the tops of the trams rocking down to the Aquarium, they surged like some natural and irrational migration of insects up and down the front.
Microsoft Word calculates readability as:
We can probably assume that most consultants and their clients have completed secondary education, so both passages should make sense to them, but simplicity is always better if it can be achieved.
Here’s my rewriting of Henry James’ text in the style of Graham Greene, just for the fun of it:
When he reached the hotel, Strether asked about his friend, Waymarsh. The clerk told him that Waymarsh would not arrive until the evening. Strether was not worried. The clerk showed him Waymarsh’s reply-paid telegram asking for a quiet room. Waymarsh knew then that they would definitely meet here in Chester rather than in Liverpool.
More digestible, even if the information is the same, but less ‘stylish’.
One more point about style: though many conservative writers of prose don’t like contractions such as don’t for do not (notably Michael Gove, the UK’s Minister of Justice, who circulated a memo on prose style to his department a few days ago), I favour prose that sounds like speech. So I would go a little further with the Graham Greene rewriting of Henry James:
When he reached the hotel, Strether asked about his friend, Waymarsh. The clerk told him that Waymarsh wouldn’t arrive until the evening. Strether wasn’t worried. The clerk showed him Waymarsh’s reply-paid telegram asking for a quiet room. Waymarsh knew then that they would definitely meet here in Chester rather than in Liverpool.
(You might have noticed that Graham Greene uses one contraction in the excerpt from Brighton Rock.)
In our ‘professional’ prose, we should avoid:
- Long sentences
- Difficult words when simple words would do
- Passive constructions
- Double negatives
Unfortunately, this is the sort of rubbish that some consultants write:
The fundamental and underlying issue we have, as of now, in respect of teaming up the system selection group, is this: the human resources currently involved in preparation for the project have already expressed a preference for their system of choice, even before project initiation. This system doesn’t reflect the input to the choice process from the logistics department, who have not, as of now, been contributive.
- Repetition (fundamental and underlying)
- Redundancy (as of now, currently)
- Lazy neologisms (teaming up, choice process, contributive)
- Cliches (human resources (when people would do), system of choice)
This ‘rubbish’ is a deliberate exaggeration, concocted by me, but some consultants do write in this way. Why not put it all more simply?
We must include the logistics department in the system selection team.
We mustn’t think that we’re paid by the sheer quantity of words we write for our clients.
Here are some more rules:
- If a paragraph can be removed without loss of meaning, remove it.
- If a sentence can be removed without loss of meaning, remove it.
- If a word can be removed without loss of meaning, remove it.
- No need for a literary style
- No need for poetry
Or, putting it another way (taking my own medicine):
- If a paragraph, sentence, or word can be removed without loss of meaning, remove it.
Or why not…
- If something can be removed without loss, remove it.
To use a horrible cliché – LESS IS MORE!