The difference between good communications and good writing

‘Effect’ or ‘affect’? Who decides? The educated author or the authoritative editor? Wedge experiences the pain of review cycles.

Well written prose is important; using appropriate vocabulary, appropriate punctuation and all the basic grammatical needs of a sentence creates the bedrock of our written communications, but expertise is not enough. You need to be able to empathise with the reader and consider how they will read and understand your message.

Let me give you an example. As an editor, I was recently handed some copy that I knew had been crafted with care and attention. Without doubt (as was proved later on in the review process) the authors were content experts and educated people. I don’t mind admitting that when it comes to English grammar, as she be taught in school, their education will certainly have been more thorough than mine.

So it was with some trepidation that I read through the article, knowing that any changes I made would need to be justified because these authors have a belief in their own ability and do not trust me or my role. It does not feel good to be mistrusted, I can tell you, but the only way to gain trust is to act in a trustworthy manner and earn it; so it’s no use pouting about it, I just have to behave professionally and do a damn good job.

I read through the article and it’s almost perfectly written. But from a comms point of view it is too wordy and too complicated. My eyes tire and I grow bored – I think about how our readers will feel and I surmise that they will not make the effort to follow the convoluted sentences. But I can’t simply say to the pedantic authors ‘it’s too complex‘ – I need to be specific in my critique, as otherwise one ends up being judgmental, rather than merely professionally critical. Oh, as an aside, I use the word ‘pedantic’ as a descriptor, not as a judgment word OK? Pedantry can refer to a hawk-like eye for detail and should not be used as a term of abuse; not all the time anyway!

My concern focuses on two main points; the use of commas to break up sentences into dependent or independent clauses, and the use of the word ‘effect‘.

The authors come back to me very strongly (that’s a euphemism for ‘arrogantly’ – see, I can be judgmental!) explaining that ‘effect’, rather than ‘affect’ is the correct word because the sentence requires a (second) noun. They are of course quite correct in their assessment.

Sentences are made up of a subject (often a noun phrase) and a predicate (often a verb phrase). You can look-up predicate online to see how many grammatical structures can be part of the predicate.

As the authors pointed out, the clause in the contentious sentence worked well with ‘an effect’ as a noun. I couldn’t argue. But I know that the synonym for ‘effect’ is ‘result‘ and I was adamant that the meaning they were wishing to convey was ‘influence‘. A synonym for ‘influence’ is ‘affect’, but ‘affect’ is only rarely a noun, so the authors were certain that I was wrong.

This is what I mean by the difference between good writing and good communications. Sympathising with the reader, I wanted to simplify the multi-clausal sentences the authors had written, and ensure the vocabulary was easy to understand. Sentences that are skipped over by the brain (because they’re lacking in information or are perceived to be too complex to bother with) perform no useful service. Sentences that have to be read twice, or hold the attention of the eyes and brain because they don’t make immediate sense, damage the efficacy of the communication. (Much like when I use the word ‘efficacy‘ instead of ‘effectiveness‘ – breaking my own rules about simplicity and directness.)

The authors believed that I didn’t know the difference between ‘effect’ and ‘affect’, even though we all agreed that we were looking for a synonym of ‘influence‘ (hence my desire to use the word ‘affect’) and I doubt that I’ve convinced the authors of my expertise and understanding, and I will have some way further to gain their trust.

I guess I didn’t enjoy the review process, and neither did they.

In the end we (I) re-wrote the multi-clausal sentence just a little to remove the need for a second noun (‘effect’) so as to be able to use the word ‘affect’ correctly. The sentence ended up being a little shorter and easier to read, which as a communicator was my sole intention.

Through the email and phone exchanges I learnt to appreciate people’s pride in their education and knowledge, and I was reminded how important it is to us humans (I include myself here) to be ‘right’ when the ultimate goal should be to consider the reader, and the impact our communications have on the audience.

If you want perfect, Lawyer School English then you’ll need to brush up on your grammar, but if you want excellent communications that move your audiences then you’ll want to re-write those troubling sentences – you’ll want to focus on how the article will be read and understood.

Good writing or good comms? Good communications encompasses good writing, but good (perfectly grammatical) writing is not always good communication.

  1. I couldn’t agree more – I have to be careful sometimes that my own sentences are not too convoluted so as to distract from the meaning. I like flowery language and unusual words, but they don’t always make for good communication!

    As for affect and effect, it’s always something I have to *think* about for a second before knowing which one to use (if I spend longer than second I start to confuse myself!)

    For example, is it correct to say that if you affect a situation, you have an effect on it?!

  2. I have great predalictions towards long and convoluted sentences, with meandering subjects and multiple asides (often in parenthesis) which accurately reflects the way I usually speak (when I get going as opposed to when I drop in a single sentence comment), but which rarely actually work anywhere near as well in written form as they do as verbalised, even though it stemms from my educational backgroun – which as a top public school is not exactly shabby.

    I wouldn’t put anything like the above paragraph into a professional piece though, as it is likely to lose people before they have finished reading it.

  3. I have to echo the previous commentors. Left to my own personal style, I’m a long winded and rambly and given to “flowery” terms and complex phrasing.

    But my professional style for conveying information to mass audiences is entirely different – from word choice to sentence length to sentence structure.

    Also, Wedge, you have just illustrated one of the main reasons why I have officially adopted AP Style for our company publications and why I keep at least two copies of the AP Style Guide in my office at all times. the entry on “affect/effect” is on page 6. :)

    But really, as you say, the bottom line is understandability. What are you trying to accomplish or communicate? And: Does this language/style support that goal?

    “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” ~ Mark Twain

  4. Great piece ! Best thing I read this week.

    I can empathise a lot because I can see myself in this in numerous ways. I am very secure in my writing ability (Hell, I have a PhD in Writing!) and can really rip into copy that I don’t think is up to scratch.

    But language is changing. We’ve moving to “oral literacy” on the web as things like text messages, web copy, etc, have changed how we consume texts. The conventions of written English a decade ago are being challenged and don’t always hold.

    So good for you, Wedge. Stick to your guns and put the emphasis on the end user. If a few boffins get irky in the process, well so be it. It’s all about communicating effectively, after all.

  5. We seem to all like to write fluid flowery prose! Good to hear from you all, and thank you to Jon for saying it wa sa ‘great piece’ – I’m sorry to say I didn’t spend that much time crafting this article, but I’m guessing you can sense my passion, thank you.

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