Cowardly writing is the linguistic equivalent of your unreliable ex. It avoids committing. It leads you astray. It wastes your time. And it evades all entreaties to be straightforward or say what it really thinks.
You can recognise it by its long sentences, convoluted structure and overuse of words and phrases such as ‘clearly’, ‘it may be assumed that’ and ‘there is evidence that’, with no verifiable evidence in sight.
These vague, deceptive or empty proclamations are also known as ‘hedges’ or ‘weasel words’ (so called because of weasels’ habit of sucking the insides out of eggs, leaving a shell that still looks full).
Linguistics professor Ken Hyland defines hedging as ‘any linguistic means used to indicate either a) a lack of complete commitment to the truth value of an accompanying proposition, or b) a desire not to express that commitment categorically.’ The hedging writer distances themselves from their own content, either out of insecurity or a lack of knowledge: ‘it may be believed that’ is a big, frightened step away from ‘I believe that’.
Come out, come out
So why do people hide behind woolly wording? Well, because actually saying something can be scary. It puts you at risk: of being questioned, proved wrong, or held accountable. Long, overly complex sentences and unnecessary jargon are often a sign that someone’s trying to hide something – perhaps the fact that they don’t know what they’re talking about. And even if they do know, it’s going to look to the reader like they don’t or that they’re a bit shifty.
Editor Patrick Neylan lives up to his Twitter handle @AngrySubEditor on the subject of cowardice in language, and the causes behind it. ‘Usually [the writer’s] only goal is to have written … To have been understood is a worry. To have inspired action in others is terrifying.’
Pull the wool
Of course, the whole point of writing is to inform and inspire, not confound. And if your writing goal is to persuade or encourage your reader to take action, you’re more likely to achieve this if you are clear and sound authoritative. So here’s how to pull the wool from your writing – and therefore your readers’ eyes:
- Start by knowing what you actually want to say: do your research, plan, and structure logically.
- Ask yourself the all-important questions: who, where, why, what, how – and how much does it cost? And don’t start writing until you’re firm on the answers.
- Avoid the temptation to cover your back. Never mind ‘it could be said that’: are you saying it or not?
- Be direct – don’t qualify everything with ‘possibly’s and ‘perhaps’s (unless you’re making the point that something is uncertain): state facts, reference them, and note their implications.
- Use the most direct words possible to make the relation between things clear, eg ‘because’ not ‘due to the fact that’.
- Favour simple sentence structure (subject-verb-object) wherever possible, eg ‘Prices have fallen.’
- Remove words and phrases that add nothing but ink. For example, ‘consensus of opinion’ (just ‘consensus or ‘opinion’ will do), ‘as is explained below’ (are you explaining it twice?), ‘as the case may be’, and ‘at the overall level’.
Speaking of inspiration, we could all do with some. Consider then, these wise words from Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei,: ‘Say what you need to say plainly, and then take responsibility for it.’ Or, with @AngrySubEditor’s tough love approach: ‘(Wo)man up; say what you’ve got to say, say it briefly, then shut up.’
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