Volume 2022, Number July (2022), Pages 1-9
Communication Corner: Why is expository writing so undervalued—and what to do about it
Each "Communication Corner" essay is self-contained; however, they build on each other. For best results, before reading this essay and doing the exercise, go to the first essay "How an Ugly Duckling Became a Swan," then read each succeeding essay.
Expository (non-fiction) writing is the kind of writing most people do in their jobs and elsewhere. Yet the importance of good expository writing is generally underrated, often severely so. This Communication Corner essay explores why undervaluing expository writing is so costly and detrimental, and what might be done about it.
The United States National Commission on Writing has reported that businesses are spending $3.1 billion annually trying to teach employees to write clearly. Quite simply, Americans are writing nonsense at work.
I am a professional expository (non-fiction) writer, which I consider to be an honorable profession. Unfortunately, many people don't seem to share this point of view, largely because they don't recognize expository writing as a profession, or even a praiseworthy accomplishment.
Early in my 40-year career, I was a copywriter for a major international technical/industrial advertising agency. Whenever we did a presentation of a new advertising campaign to a client, I remember the oohs and aahs about the artwork, but hardly a mention of the copy (text).
I also remember as a freelance consultant being called on by a potential client who needed a new brochure for an important upcoming trade show. He said, "I would write this myself, but I am just too busy, so I will let you do it." I stifled the urge to scream, then calmly said, "Sir, I am a professional. If you don't think that I could write the copy for this brochure significantly better than you could, we can't do business together." He looked stunned. "Writing is what I do day in and day out to earn my daily bread. If my clients could truly do as good a job as I can do 'if they only had time,' then I would have starved to death a long time ago."
By contrast, if I were a reputed author of fiction, I am certain no one would ever say, "If I only had the time, I could also write a best-selling novel."
Fortunately, it is not always this way. On rare occasions good expository writing gets the credit it genuinely deserves. Here are two illustrative examples.
As a freelancer, at one time I used to write technical articles for the customer newsletter of an international paint manufacturer. I was one of several writers for the publication. One day when I was delivering a text to the company's marketing communication manager, she said, "I can recognize your articles without ever reading your name on them. I have very little technical background, but when I read your articles, I understand every word. With the other writers, I often have to read an article two or three times to be certain that I truly understand what they are talking about. How do you do it?"
On another occasion, the European marketing communication manager of an international chemicals manufacturer showed me a short note from the head of one of the company's national subsidiaries. This time the comment was about a news release I had written. Unfortunately, I don't still have the note, but I still have a fond memory of it. It said something like this.
"I have never before seen a news release that so clearly, concisely, and fluently presents an important aspect of our company and its operations. Congratulations to the writer."
I had never before seen anyone else comment on the quality of a news release, probably because too many people must think that they write themselves. So no comment is needed.
Why do so many people seem to believe that good expository writing is simply a matter of doing it, requiring no special talent or training?
I attribute this pernicious indifference to the almost universal, unspoken, and decidedly erroneous belief that "I am an educated person, so of course I know how to write." However, as already noted, the same attitude does not apply to "creative writing" such as a novel, a stage play, a movie script, etc. Likewise with the graphic arts. Who has ever said, "I am an educated person, so of course I know how to draw and paint"?
I imagine most readers of this essay are not professional writers, so how does this lament about the undervaluing of expository writing really affect you? Indeed it does, in two fundamental ways:
- Writing almost certainly takes up some part of your professional life. So if you haven't already encountered it, you should be aware of how this unfair way of judging the value of good writing could make your life more difficult.
- At some time in your career, you may have to judge the writing of others in your group or even a professional from outside. You will want the best text you can get, so you will need how to encourage good writing rather than discouraging it.
I am about to recount several experiences from my long career. Nothing I am going to say will be a panacea for ensuring that your writing will be better appreciated or that you will better appreciate the writing of others. However, the more you understand about how good writing happens—and how it should be judged—the better.
The Art of Editing
My first real job after leaving university was as a reporter/feature writer for The Wall Street Journal. I remember the incident as if it happened only yesterday when in fact it happened more than a half-century ago. I had been assigned to write a major feature article, i.e. one of those articles which, rather than simply reporting the news, does a detailed investigation to help readers better interpret the news.
It took me about three weeks to complete the assignment and hand it in to the editor-in-chief. He reviewed it for about a half-hour, then called me over to his desk. He said, "If I had written an article on this subject, I would have done it completely differently."
My face went ashen. I prepared myself for a good tongue-lashing about my incompetence. I could only hope he would take into consideration that he was a seasoned journalist, and I was just a rank amateur. But then he went on to say, "This article is really good. Sit down. I have a few suggestions on how to make it even better, but it is already really good."
The lesson to be learned? There is almost always more than one way to write something well. A good critic knows this, and so doesn't insist that their way is the only way. This editor had a reputation of being a very nice guy, which he truly was. Because he was also truly professional.
Time Is Essential
Later in my career, I became a junior account executive in a large industrial/technical communication agency in Brussels. Early on a Tuesday morning, I received a call from one of my clients.
Client: "I need a news release for Thursday afternoon."
Client: "Well, Friday morning I will be flying to New York, and I would like to review it while I am there."
Me: "I know you will be flying to New York Friday morning. I also know what you will be doing. What do you think the odds are that you will be able to review the news release while you are there?"
Client: "Oh, about fifty-fifty."
Here's where this story gets really interesting.
I had several other things on my agenda for the next couple of days. So I said to the client, "I would like to make you a proposal If you insist, you will have the news release you want by Thursday afternoon, and it will be the best news release I know how to write between now and Thursday afternoon. Or you can have it on your desk first thing Monday morning when you get back. And it will be the best news release I know how to write. Period The price is the same; the choice is yours."
He seemed to take my proposal as a challenge and said, "Okay, you're on."
About 11 o'clock the following Monday, my boss came into my office with a puzzled look on his face and said, "I have just had the strangest call from one of your clients. He said that you delivered him the best news release he had ever seen. What did you?"
"Nothing special," I said. "I just wrote a news release."
I didn't dare tell him what I had actually done. In this agency, the definition of "quality" was "rapidity." If a client asked for something by Thursday afternoon, you delivered it on Wednesday afternoon just to show how good we were. If my boss had known what I had done, he certainly would have reprimanded me, if not fired me.
Later the same day I received a call from my client. He said, "I had always thought I was getting good quality news releases from your agency. But this one was truly exceptional. From now on when I tell you what I need, you will tell me when you can deliver it." And that is what we did from then on. And my boss never knew.
The lesson to be learned? Good writing takes time. Make certain you give it the time it deserves. Both when you do it yourself, but certainly when asking someone else to do it.
Let me reinforce this lesson from a somewhat different perspective. About the same time this incident took place, I had a friend who was a professional translator from English into Dutch. One day one of her clients dropped by with a text. This was Monday morning. He said, "I would like the translation by Thursday afternoon." She looked at the text for a moment, then said, "You won't get it by Thursday afternoon. Next Monday at the earliest, and possibly even later."
"What? Surely this isn't a difficult transition!" he exclaimed. "No it isn't," she replied. "But let me ask you a question. How long do you think it would take you simply to read this text?" "About 10–15 minutes," he said.
She then challenged him to sit down and actually do so. When he finished reading, it had taken him a full 27 minutes. "Now do you see why you can't have the translation by Friday?" He did, so they agreed on possible delivery the following Monday, or Tuesday at the latest.
The lesson to be learned? Good translating, which involves good writing, takes time. For best results, make certain you give it the time it deserves.
Setting Equitable Standards
One of the most disappointing experiences in my professional career occurred when a major pharmaceutical company asked the agency where I was working to produce a quarterly newsletter about a two-year clinical trial. The trial was on children 2–4 years old. The company felt parents had to be regularly updated on the progress of the trial; otherwise, many of them might withdraw their children before the trial was completed.
The briefing was: "Most of these parents have the intelligence and scientific understanding of a 12-year-old. So the articles in the newsletter must be extremely simple."
We produced a draft for the first issue of the newsletter, which the client rejected. "This is much too high level and complex for our audience. Do it again and make it simpler." So we did it again and got the same reaction. So we did it a third time. Again it was rejected. However, this time the client added, "Since you can't seem to do the job correctly, we will do it ourselves."
About a month later, they published the first issue of the newsletter. To our minds, it was much more high-level and complex than any of our attempts, and certainly not geared to a 12-year-old mind. With publication of the second issue, we were absolutely certain they were way off the brief under which we had to work. We were hoping they would recognize this and return to us to write the following issues of the newsletters. But they didn't. Instead, the newsletter simply stopped.
So what had happened?
We could never be certain, but I imagine they had discovered that writing simply is much more difficult and time-consuming than they had imagined. So when the time consumption for the first issue became excessive, they simply went with the best they had. Likewise, with the second edition. After that, they simply gave up.
The lesson to be learned? Don't impose standards of good writing on others that you wouldn't impose on yourself. Then don't lower those standards if you decide to do it yourself. I sincerely hope that the success of the clinical trial on these toddlers was not seriously jeopardized by cancelation of the newsletter. It was an important study and deserved to be completed under the best possible conditions.
Seeing Beyond the Surface
At one time I was the copywriter on an advertising campaign for a major client. When we presented our proposal, we got the inevitable oohs and aahs for the artwork and a couple of suggestions for the copy.
Client: "I would like to change the word 'abundant' in the first sentence to 'generous' because I think it sounds more personal."
Me: "But if we do that, we will also have to change the third sentence, which would no longer fit with the overall theme of the ad. In fact, to make this change I will probably have to rewrite the whole thing."
Client: "You mean that is a structure to the text. I thought it was just a lot of pretty words."
I then showed the client other aspects of the text that were not obvious on the surface but were crucial to the structure underneath.
The lesson to be learned? I think it can best be summed up by quotations from five historic luminaries.
"What one takes most pains to do should look as if it had been thrown off quickly, almost without effort, take infinite pains to make something that looks effortless."—Michelangelo
"What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure." —Samuel Johnson
"The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think."—Edwin Schlossberg
"The writer does the greatest good who gives his reader the most knowledge and takes from him the least time." —Sydney Smith
"Easy reading is damn hard writing."—Nathaniel Hawthorne
It Takes Two
To finish on an even more positive note, I would like to recount an incident I heard about but didn't actually experience myself. It concerns a young employee in a company who had been assigned to produce a text on a moderately complex subject. When he turned it in, the following conversation ensued:
Boss: "This won't do. Rewrite it."
Employee: "But what's wrong with it?"
Boss: "It doesn't really grab me. It has to be made more interesting."
Employee: "In what way does it need to be made more interesting?"
Boss: "Well, it just doesn't seem to speak to me. You will just have to write it better."
This unproductive conversation went on for a few more minutes. Finally, the young employee took his life in his hands and said, "Sir, this is the best text I know how to write based on the information I was given. Any way I change it without additional information or guidance will only make it worse."
He was expecting the roof to cave in on him. Fortunately, his boss was a reasonable person. "I think I see what you mean," she said. "Let's look at it together and see what we can do with it." And that's what they did. After 10 minutes or so, they identified several places where added bits of information and slight restructuring could indeed make it better. When the young employee turned in a revised draft, both of them agreed that it had been considerably improved and was now truly worthy of being circulated to the rest of the company.
The lesson to be learned here? It is axiomatic that any piece of good expository writing requires at least two drafts.
The first draft is to gather together all information that seems relevant to the subject and put it into a more or less coherent form. The second draft (with may or may not be the final draft) is to put the text into a form that will make it easy and informative for people to read. It is possible to do a second draft completely by oneself, but it is almost always better to produce it as a team.
Asking for someone's help is not a sign of weakness; it is essential to the process. Giving help is not to stigmatize the writer as incompetent, but to recognize him or her as a true professional.
Philip Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California with a degree in mathematics and physics. In his senior year, he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, UCLA's daily student newspaper. He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and international marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a specialized marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974. He is the author of more than 30 books, which can be found easily in Amazon Kindle.
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