|Oregon State Bar Bulletin AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2010|
Editing Obtuse Writing
By M.H. Sam Jacobson
Good writing lightly dances from the page to the reader’s eye, but dense writing is to a reader like a cud is to its cow — it has to be chewed over and over before it can be digested. Dense writing suffers from the “hunh?” factor: it is writing that stops readers dead in their tracks and leaves them bewildered as to what they just read, even after the second or third reading.
Writing that is too dense for readers to absorb occurs primarily in three circumstances: the use of acronyms, noun strings and obtuse language.
While useful for writers, acronyms are a pain for readers. Consider this description of a case:
This case concerns a NEPA challenge to a ROD of the BLM concluding that a FEIS adequately evaluated CBM development under the PRRA RMP.1
In plain English, this sentence states that the case concerns a challenge under the National Environmental Protection Act to a record of decision issued by the Bureau of Land Management, concluding that a federal Environmental Impact Statement adequately evaluated coal bed methane development under the Powder River Resource Area resource management plan.
Aaahhh. Got it.
Acronyms convey a large amount of information in a small space. That density, though, is challenging for readers. When people read, they internally pronounce the words they are reading. However, acronyms are generally not pronounceable. That’s why FNMA2 becomes “Fanny Mae” and SCSI3 becomes “scuzzy.” The inability to pronounce an acronym causes readers to stumble. When readers stumble, they attend to what caused the stumble, not the substance of what’s being said.
The density of acronyms is also challenging for readers because readers must translate them. In a document concerning debt collection, anytime readers see the acronym FDCPA, they mentally translate it to Federal Debt Collection Practices Act. That translation slows the reading and again distracts the reader from the substance of the material. If the writer is lucky, the reader will reread the passage to be sure it’s understood. If the writer is not so lucky, the reader will slog on without the desired level of understanding.
With simpler acronyms, the reader’s translation may not be accurate because the same acronym may mean different things, depending on the context. For example, PC is commonly used to mean personal computer or politically correct, but in other contexts may mean something completely different, like probable cause (criminal law), privy council (international law) or carrier power4 (media law). This duplication of acronyms further slows reading when the reader has to re-translate the acronym to fit the context, and it can lead to misunderstandings concerning the meaning of what’s read.
As challenging as acronyms can be for readers, they are a useful shorthand for writers. Fortunately for writers, every word processor has features that will allow writers to convert acronyms to something easier to read. Under the Edit menu, Find and Replace features allow the writer to search the document for an acronym and replace it with the words it represents. In addition, under the Tools menu, Quick Correct or AutoCorrect features allow the writer to enter an acronym as the word to be corrected and then the words to which the acronym should be converted. Whenever the writer types that acronym, the word processor will automatically “correct” it to the words.
Both features are an easy solution to the denseness that acronyms create in writing. Your readers will thank you.
Noun strings also create dense writing that is challenging for readers to absorb. Check this one out:
The underground mine worker safety protection procedures development project requires inter- and intra-agency cooperation.5
Hunh? Excuse me while I catch my breath.
The noun string in the subject contains eight words: underground mine worker safety protection procedures development project. Readers can manage three of these words without too much trouble: underground mine worker, mine worker safety, safety protection procedures, protection procedures development, procedures development project. Put all those words together, though, and the writing is too dense for the reader to digest without a good bit of effort.
Additional effort is needed to understand the substance of the writing. After the third word, readers will begin looking for what to do with the nouns they are collecting. If readers are searching for the verb, they are not attending to the substance of the writing. That means they will have to reread the sentence, maybe several times, to understand its meaning.
Additional effort is also needed to understand individual words. Noun strings usually contain one or more nominalizations, verbs converted to nouns. Consider the increased difficulty of understanding protection procedures development compared to underground mine worker or mine worker safety. The latter two sets of words contain concrete words that convey a clear picture to the reader, but protection procedures development does not. Instead, each of those words is an abstraction created from the verbs protect, proceed, and develop. No clear picture emerges.
To edit for noun strings, search your document for subjects or noun units that contain more than three words. For any that you find, break them into digestible chunks by using appropriate prepositions, eliminating nominalizations, or redrafting to avoid putting too much information into a single sentence or to clarify the point of view. For example, we can redraft the sentence that began this discussion of noun strings to state:
Inter- and intra-agency cooperation is required on the project for developing procedures to protect the safety of underground mine workers.
Aaahhh. Got it.
Obtuse. Finally, obtuse wording also results in dense writing that is challenging for readers to absorb. By obtuse wording, I mean wording that includes words the reader knows but that are presented in a way that the reader has no idea what’s being said. If you’ve read a mission statement lately, you know what I mean. Consider this statement:
We will continually fashion economically sound paradigms so that we may endeavor to synergistically engineer cutting edge performance based infrastructure.
Or how about this statement from an article’s abstract:
Our experimental approach allowed the characterization of the offline evolution of the cerebral correlates of recent memories, without the confounding effect of concurrent practice of the learned material.
I didn’t bother to read the article.
In each of these examples, the individual words used are known, but the sentence conveys no concrete information. No amount of re-reading will solve the problem. It’s a failure to communicate.
Editing obtuse writing begins with the writer asking, what am I trying to say? Only if you know what you want to say can you determine how best to say it. Of course, if you’re trying to hide the fact that you don’t know what you’re talking about, then the obtuse writing is perfect; at least you’re buying yourself time to figure out what you want to say. However, if you know what you’re talking about, then consider how to state your thoughts so the reader will understand you. Simple, concrete statements always communicate a clearer picture to the reader than a collection of buzzwords, as nice sounding as those buzzwords might be.
Aaahhh. Got it.
1. This example is derived from an example provided by Judge Kleinfeld in Northern Cheyenne Tribe v. Norton, 503 F.3d 836, 839 n.1 (9th Cir. 2007).
2. Federal National Mortgage Association.
3. Small computer system interface (the gizmo that allows your personal computer to talk to its peripherals).
4. While carrier power might more logically be abbreviated CP, it is indeed PC. Go figure.
5. This example is derived from an example on the federal government’s plain language website, www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/guidelines/bigdoc/writeNoNounStrings.cfm.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The author is a legal research and writing instructor at Willamette University College of Law in Salem.
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2010 M.H. Sam Jacobson