Eschew obfuscation to write more clearly

When presenting workshops on writing more clearly, I always tell attendees the most important advice I can offer is to eschew obfuscation.

Whether I’m speaking to top execs or folks in the early stages of their careers, that advice provokes blank stares throughout the room. I didn’t create the phrase, but I adore it, because it’s an ironic way to remind people of the importance of clear, simple language.

Don’t feel bad if you’re scratching your head. The words are unfamiliar to many. “Eschew” is a verb for deliberately avoiding something or some act. If you’re allergic to okra, you’ll eschew Cajun food. And “obfuscation” describes the act of making something impossible to understand. So when you eschew obfuscation, you’re avoiding the use of language people aren’t likely to understand.

Why do I believe eschewing obfuscation is the most important advice I can provide? Simple. We’re surrounded by obfuscation all the time. And it starts to creep into our own writing.

I’m convinced one of the worst enemies of clear, understandable writing is higher education. You’d think that a college composition course would produce people able to write more effectively and communicate their messages in more compelling ways. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case.

Students are taught to use the academic style of writing. It’s very formal, built upon a certain structure, guided by hundreds of rules which cannot be violated. Academic writing is the style that’s been expected in the academic world for decades. Don’t use contractions. You simply cannot use the second person. And never start a sentence with a conjunction.

The students are afraid of those rules and want to sound as smart as possible. So they write long, complex sentences studded with semicolons and choked with clauses. They dig deeply into their thesauruses, desperately seeking four-syllable words they can use in place of their two-syllable thoughts. (Yeah, you did it, too.) So instead of trying to present their newfound wisdom clearly and cogently, the students embrace obfuscation.

Far too many students leave school believing the academic style is the normal, compulsory way to write. It is normal and compulsory in the academic world … but nowhere else. Once we’re out of school, we’re no longer writing to impress professors. We’re trying to communicate with co-workers, supervisors, prospects, clients, vendors, and other mere mortals.

So we’re puzzled when we receive emails pleading “the brewed beverage receptacle is demonstrating a skew toward the absence of its essential contents” when the writer just wanted someone to make more coffee. We’re “utilizing” when we should be “using” and “servicing” when we should be “serving.” We’re receiving sales proposals worded like the Terms & Conditions section you didn’t read when you downloaded that software update. We’re hiring really smart people and struggling to understand why they can’t communicate.

Instead of taking 30 seconds to send an email reading “I’d like to meet with you late next week,” we agonize for 10 minutes and end up with “I am desirous of an opportunity to address this face-to-face and assuming your schedule is unburdened, have availabilities in the latter half of the week beginning …”

The more education a profession demands, the more obfuscation you’ll find. Attorneys, accountants, and medical professionals are among the worst offenders. They wonder why their clients fail to follow their advice. It’s simple. They can’t take advantage of your expertise because they don’t understand your recommendations.

Please don’t thinking I’m blaming teachers and professors. It truly isn’t their fault. It’s all about students misunderstanding that the style learned in classrooms and lecture halls is the way we’re all supposed to write everything. It’s not.

Whether you’re writing an email to a colleague, preparing a proposal for a prospective customer, or developing an article to educate others about some aspect of your area of expertise, use plain, everyday English. Write short sentences. Choose familiar words. If a sentence contains a semicolon or three commas, break it into smaller sentences. Instead of trying to impress the reader with your brilliant command of formal grammar, write so they’ll understand what you’re trying to say.

Put another way? Eschew obfuscation.