Wherein the Editor Vents, a Little
Bad writing is my bane. I don’t mean the sort of writing that appears on blogs as streams of consciousness, a quick and ready reflection of the world as it changes. That can be excused because it doesn’t carry with it the pretence of anything that might even approach perfection. I can even reluctantly leave aside newspaper journalism, for much the same reason. And my concern is not so much with the elision of facts or any confusion of dates. That happens to the best of us, and most readers are wise enough to navigate through the discrepancies. No, my beef, and what pains me professionally, is with writing that should be good but isn’t, that has a message but can’t communicate.
Where does written communication start and end – how does it happen? All communication should be a two-way process. Speaking and listening creates a dialogue, an exchange, and in a similar manner writing should always acknowledge the reader. Quite obviously writing can’t be as dialectical as a conversation that reaches agreement, but writers should always imagine the reception of their account or argument before they begin. Even if you write for yourself you’re still an audience and things have to make sense. But how many times have you heard someone say “I don’t know what I meant when I wrote that”?
Bad writing by people who should know and do better can be intensely frustrating for someone like me, but it also has practical implications. Allow me to given an example. Last night I rewrote a domestic helper’s statement that originally described a situation in which she was given a letter telling her that if she didn’t improve her performance after a week of compulsory training she would be sacked. This, in itself, might not seem confusing, but the statement had been transcribed by a help agency that often deals with cases of unfair dismissal and knew the details of the woman’s situation. By passing on the statement without thinking whether it communicated the problem at hand, that problem could well have grown.
Although this missive was labelled a “termination letter”, what the statement actually described was an official warning, and it would have been considered as such under the law in Hong Kong. Had the statement been submitted to the Labour Tribunal unaltered it would have been considered evidence of the woman breaching her own employment contract by leaving after being given a mere warning, with the concomitant financial burden of having to pay her employer the equivalent of a month’s salary and make her own way back to the Philippines without a ticket provided as part of her severance package. But what the woman had related to be written down was that she was given a termination letter that would be rescinded following the compulsory notice period of one month if she performed well after her training.
The difference in law is substantial – having received that letter the woman was entitled to the payment of her salary after the notice period ended. As she received no payment, amongst other violations of her contract, she has a case in law against her employer. The amended statement is now with the Labour Tribunal.
I mention this at length not to spite the help agency or its volunteers – it’s an extraordinary organisation that works tirelessly to assist domestic helpers in the most dire of circumstances. But a simple lack of attention to detail, a sentence written without sufficient clarity, can undo a world of good work. And it’s not a problem of translation – the statement was given in English and the woman clearly expressed what happened when I realised something was awry and asked her in the same language.
In any case, this incapacity to express a clear point is common enough in the writing of native English speakers. The provision of questionable information is often confused with the articulation of a theme, perhaps in the hope that enough ‘factoids’ will replace the need to take a position, to make a stand. We have a bullet point writing culture in which ‘items’ coalesce beneath an inadequate heading. And interestingly enough, this escape from prose towards notes could have something of an inter-language basis.
A recent issue of Scientific American described an experiment in which subjects who used a range of languages were asked to play charades. Rather than approaching the game, which essentially asks participants to act out a sentence (usually in the form of a book or movie title) according to the structure of the language that the subjects used, they mainly acted out a subject-object-verb structure. In less constrained circumstances the result would be “you my blog read”, instead of the English subject-verb-object “you read my blog”. For the speakers of some languages, such as Japanese, the ‘unusual’ construction would mirror the normal sentence structure, but not for most.
Yet any attentive parent would know that their children began to speak in a similar way. The subject and the object are tangible, the verb an abstract. An English speaking child will first say “sweet”, then “I [or their own name] sweet” and finally “I want [a] sweet” or the like. In some languages, such as Tagalog in the Philippines, the order would be “I sweet” then “want I [a] sweet” (eventually the pattern is verb, subject and then object). It seems to be a natural condition of human thought to juxtapose the important elements of a sentence – what you are addressing and what will happen to it – and only then add the narrative elements; the action words, the descriptive words, and so on.
We live in a world in which communication is tangled within this mess of words, which could explain why very few people write well, or even well enough. What bad writing lacks is the enthusiasm to drag ideas into place to suit the language or languages in use, the capacity to care for what the reader is thinking as they decipher the thoughts transcribed on the page or transferred to the screen. Even people who write well write badly sometimes, but they’re always aware of their audience and what that audience might be thinking. That’s communication.
So I conclude as I began: bad writing is my bane. I’m not uptight about apostrophes or precious about grammar, and I care little for titles strewn here and there. Short and long paragraphs and sentences impress me equally. But each time I see a piece of writing without a theme, a sentence that obscures its own meaning, I feel a little injured in my understanding of the rest of humanity, I witness a small death of reason.
Bad writing poisons my appreciation of what other people are doing or thinking in this ever puzzling world.