Monday, February 23, 2015

How to avoid awful committee writing: Go back to the beginning

“A camel is a horse designed by a committee.” That’s been attributed to more than one person, and it’s an excellent way to describe written documents that get approved by authorities who are more concerned about things other than the content of the documents themselves. In other words, documents produced by corporations and governments.

Recently, I’ve found some especially great examples of terrible writing. I’ve changed a few words to protect the guilty, without affecting the weight of its awfulness.

Many participants in consultations expressed the view that fostering a change in attitudes and behaviours is necessary to counter the culture of instant gratification and its impact on health.

That sentence is overloaded, cramming several ideas into one string of words: changing attitudes, which are distinct from behaviours; instant gratification as a culture; and health. As if that’s not enough, the Select Committee of Awful Writing Creation and Promotion (SCAWCP) jammed in the superfluous phrases “participants in consultations,” “expressed the view” and “fostering a change.”

Committees that review and approve writing seem to prefer passive sentences—the kind of sentence that doesn’t tell you who or what performed the action. I think that’s because the people on these committees either don’t want to take responsibility for the actions described, or don’t want to give anyone else credit.

Take this example:
Some positive results were reported from initiatives that help individuals reflect on personal values, set goals and take concrete steps to align their behaviours with their values and personal goals.

Committee writing often shows chains of words and phrases, placed so that readers cannot tell which is most important. Again, this probably results from the competitive nature of committees—no one is willing to let another’s idea take prominence over their own.

Participants in the consultations noted that many people are uncomfortable talking about colon health and that there is a stigma associated with getting help to improve health understanding, which has been a barrier to building their health knowledge.

What is that sentence about—the consultations, colon health, a social stigma, understanding of health or barriers to knowledge?

Here’s a string of adjectives. Maybe they’re all equally important to the plan, but SCAWCP apparently thinks a subject is not important:
With a focused plan that is inclusive, relevant and accessible, the aim is to help patients understand the Internet and take steps that will enable them to use online resources to their best advantage.

I feel sorry for the documents I took these sentences from. I imagine they began as good sentences, and then successive approvers stretched, contorted, twisted and mangled them beyond recognition. I don’t know what they even mean, anymore.

That’s the problem—neither did the committee. The people who had approval authority over these documents did not have the same objectives. The committees expected a single document to achieve different, sometimes competing goals.

What’s the solution? As always, go back to the beginning and get a GRIP:
  • Goal—why are you writing this sentence, this paragraph, this document? What do you want your readers to do after they read your document? Before you start writing, state the goal clearly. Keep it in mind while you are editing, reviewing or approving any document.Examples of goals: 
    • propose a strategy 
    • sell more products 
    • explain how to save money.
  • Reader—whom is this document for? What do they know, what do they need to understand, what motivates them?
  • Idea—the thesis statement, the most important idea in your document. Try this: “You have to only one sentence to tell me what your document says.”
  • Plan—the other ideas that support or prove the main idea. Put them in the order that will take the reader from your thesis statement to fulfilling your goal.

If your goal is to improve understanding of colon health, for example, you need to know who your readers are, what they know about colon health now, what they need to learn, and what would interest them in reading about their colons. Then you need to organize the information so that these particular readers can follow it.

However, getting an executive’s approval on your idea for a strategy to improve the public’s knowledge of colon health takes a very different document. Its goal would to get a signature or an approval to spend some resources, the reader would be one person or a small group of people, and the thesis would be something like: “We need to spend X dollars on this strategy so that this organization will benefit in the following particular way.”

Writing well is not easy, but it’s not complex, either. It’s a matter of keeping the basic rules in mind. The next time you submit your writing for approval, remind the review committee about your goal, reader and thesis.


  1. I swear that this kind of writing, done in ambiguous vague words, is done so that they can never get taken to court for anything they say because you don't quite know exactly what they're saying. I wish people would just TALK to people... say what you want to say. Not for nothing, easy prose is sometimes a heck of a lot better than Kafka...

  2. I'm laughing for this reminds me of a great grammar/syntax book titled: Eats, Shoots and Leaves referring to a panda. Great thoughts!

  3. Anonymous12:35 PM

    I think that type of writing is an art form. It jumbles many ideas and points of view together yet is vague enough to deny culpability if there is backlash.

    Onisha Ellis

  4. Wow, those example sentences were something else. As a fiction author, I considered how GRIP applies to the flow of a novel--with a little mental modification. My goals are consistently entertainment, clarity, and story flow. My readers are everything to me; a bad product will send them away. The idea . . . well, I don't start a book with a thesis, but that hook is vital to draw the reader into the world with me. However, I definitely will start my blog posts with clear theses from now on. Plan is just weaving a story with no loose threads dangling. Sometimes a sentence I believed was unimportant gets a reader to weave in a story thread; I had one in my last book and will address it as the series develops.

    Thank you so much for this fantastic post. May corporate and committee writers read it and use its lessons. Sounding smart is achieved through clear, concise statements--not meandering prose weighed down with rarely-used and misused words.

    Kudos, Scott!

  5. I'm married to an attorney, and he speaks like this. I can never pin him down on anything he says. LOL

  6. Makes my head hurt. I'm glad I left the corporate world far behind. Language like that makes work for lawyers; you have to sue to determine what's meant. Nice post, Scott.

  7. I get dizzy reading mumbo jumbo like this, but it seems like that's all we read from government, insurance & attorneys. It's exhausting.

  8. OMG... I've been there, done that. (The writing for corporates who must circle in every single person remotely connected to the project for input). If you can avoid it, DO. It's a nightmare. And yes, you typically end up at the very beginning anyway, when the lead person gets so disgusted with what its become, they suddenly, in a strike of their own perceived brilliance suggest an approach YOU started with. It's happened more than once to me! My PR and Marketing firm seemed to bring out the loons.