Words, Language and Finagle’s Law of Information

posted by Brendan Hodgson

In addition to counselling on web-related issues and helping clients create more compelling and engaging personalities online, I write. A lot. In fact, I am perhaps at my most professionally content when I am challenged to create a document required to capture the attention of a certain audience. Without question, not all my efforts are successful. But ever since beginning training as a journalist back in the mid ’90s, I have been driven largely by the thoughts and writings of two individuals: John Maynard Keynes and George Orwell. They have helped me immeasurably.

It was Keynes who wrote: “Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking.”

Particularly in this business, it seems, we try too hard to be pretty or we reject any attempt at making our writing truly engaging lest we risk offending our clients or challenging the intellect of our / their audiences. Likewise, I find we are too often attached to some traditional variant – notably, the press release format – which constricts our creativity and ability to influence, so much so that most of the releases I now read appear almost a parody.

Above my desk are four pieces of paper of which one is a variation of Finagle’s Law of information, the other being the quote by Keynes, a third being a re-affirmation that meetings tend to be a “practical alternative to work” rather than an enabler and should thus be avoided at all cost, and George Orwell’s six rules for writing, which are included below. This is apt, particularly considering my colleague Leo’s focus on what Junior Consultants can do to improve their work and deliver better client service: 

  1. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  2. If it is possible to cut the word out, always cut it out.
  3. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  4. Never use a foreign word, scientific word, or jargon word when you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  5.  Never use a metaphor, simile, or figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
6 Comments
07

Sep
2006

James Barbour

Hear hear.  I take great delight in the English language, although I can succumb to overly flowery drafting.  But we all need to keep up the constant efforts to be both concise and bold in equal measure.

Perhaps we should, as my first employer did, be giving Leo’s junior PR execs a copy each of Ernest Gowers’ Complete Plain Words on their first day.  I still have mine, you can read it here:

http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/gowerse/complete/index.htm

Cheers

James

08

Sep
2006

Paull Young

Great post Brendan.

I hadn’t seen Orwell’s six rules for writing before, I’ve written them down now. Great stuff.

08

Sep
2006

Donna Papacosta

Great post, Brendan. And thanks for introducing me to Finagle’s Law!

08

Sep
2006

Brendan Hodgson

Thanks Donna. To me, Finagle’s law of information encapsulates some of the most important challenges to working in PR.

Paul, I first read Orwell’s six rules in an article in the Economist, a magazine against which I try to model all my professional writing. To me, they’ve set the standard.

Thanks for the link, James. The only books that really made a difference in my writing were the "Elements of Style" and William Zinsser’s "On Writing Well". But I’ll certainly take a look at the link above. There’s always more to learn.

26

Sep
2006

Brendan Hodgson

As you may have noticed from an earlier post, I like words. With the right words, people and organizations…

18

Oct
2006

Brendan Hodgson

«I write differently from the way I speak, I speak differently from the way I think, I think differently…

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