Writing and The Emperor’s New Clothes


When you read something fairly impenetrable––or just too formal for your taste––do you ever feel like the innocent child in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the emperor and his elegant but “invisible” new clothes? The child proclaimed what was apparent to all: that the emperor had no clothes on. That child who had the naiveté and courage to speak up occurs to me whenever I encounter otherwise intelligent writing that, to my mind, should have been composed more simply.

So why do we occasionally stray from a natural style and tax our reader unnecessarily? My theory is that it’s difficult to shed the conditioning we experienced in school: to write to impress. School was a time to display the expansion of our vocabulary and support our points of view in great depth. Because teachers needed to monitor our intellectual progress, we often wrote in the scholarly style we saw in our textbooks.

At work, however, we need to overcome that tendency because our readers want to absorb our points quickly. What helps is keeping in mind the sharp distinction between successful academic writing and successful workplace writing. The formal style that won us an “A” on  a term paper or essay exam is a style we should echo only when the content or format requires it or when we are writing to a reader who prefers a more academic tone.

Unfortunately, our resolve to write naturally, is occasionally shaken by writing such as this––the first sentence of a renowned columnist’s opinion piece: America overflows with specious “victims” demanding redress for spurious grievances. I guess I’m revealing my lowbrow tendencies when I confess that I barely skimmed this article, even though it was penned by someone I revere and pertained to a subject I’m passionate about: baseball. I just wasn’t in the mood to slow down enough to decipher the lofty language.

More recently, the same columnist began a piece with Disabusing the Republican Party of a cherished dogma, thereby requiring it to forgo a favorite rhetorical trope, will not win Clark M. Neily III the gratitude of conservatives who relish denouncing “judicial activism.” I’m sure the writer’s fans cheered another of his brilliant columns, but I felt like the kid in the Andersen story.

You don’t have to agree, but I say we have plenty of opportunities to impress our readers (if impressing is our aim) with clarity, conciseness, effective organization, precise language, and a natural and friendly tone. When our writing is simply a slightly refined version of the way we talk, our readers can’t cry out that we don’t have any clothes on.

In addition to presenting workshops on writing in the workplace, Norm Friedman is a writer, editor, and writing coach. His 100+ Instant Writing Tips is a brief “non-textbook” to help individuals overcome common writing errors and write with more finesse and impact. Learn more at http://www.normfriedman.com/index.shtml.


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