Famous Last Words: How to Write Right
I do not read blogs. So many of them are simply unreadable—wildly undisciplined and unedited stream-of-consciousness musings that never seem to get to the point.
A magnificent new book of advice for writers (and speakers) is “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear” by Dr. Frank Luntz (Hyperion, 2007). A corporate and political communications consultant who has been called the “hottest pollster in America” by The Boston Globe, Luntz has made a huge impact on modern history. Working with Newt Gingrich, Luntz persuaded the Republicans to introduce the “Contract with America” just six weeks before the 1994 mid-term elections. The document was signed by all but two Republican member of Congress and so electrified the voters that the Democrats lost majorities in both the House and Senate.
The message of “Words That Work” is that writers and speakers must use the English language with absolute precision, leaving no doubt about what they mean. An example of Luntz’s philosophy can be found in his answer to this frequently asked question, “Why did you call it a contract?” Quite simply, he said, “Every other option was out.”
A “plan” wouldn’t have sounded sufficiently binding, plus we all know what happens to the best-laid plans.
“Promises” are made to be broken, especially when politicians make them.
“Pledges” go unfulfilled.
“Platforms” are too political.
“Oaths” have legal connotations.
“Covenants” have religious overtones (and Bill Clinton had used the “New Covenant” motif in his 1992 presidential nomination speech).
Few of us who write memos, letters, e-correspondence, reports, whitepapers, articles and books spend inordinate amounts of time agonizing over the subtle differences between synonyms. Rather, we slam the piece into print—usually under horrendous deadlines—and go on to the next task.
But the fact is much that is written is simply bad. “Just pick up almost any 2007 annual report and leaf through to the standard CEO letter,” Luntz writes. “Circle the words, phrases and concepts you don’t understand, you don’t like, or you just aren’t quite sure about. You’ll need a lot of ink.”