Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, was on NPR to discuss his new book, Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects. I happen to enjoy history and respect William Shakespeare’s work, though I wouldn’t call myself an expert on either.
But what drew me into the interview was MacGregor’s passion as an author. The energy he channeled while describing the events that influenced Shakespeare reminded me of a delighted child.
“Henry V is where this book began,” he enthused. “We the public work with Shakespeare the writer to imagine a new world.”
Within 24 hours, I encountered two other interviews with authors mirroring MacGregor’s joy.
One was another NPR interview, this one with best-selling author John Grisham, whose latest, Sycamore Row, currently resides at #2 on the New York Times list. Grisham clearly enjoyed discussing his work—not in a prideful way, but as a child sharing a special treat with a best friend.
“Every book goes back to story. You can’t write anything without a story,” Grisham said, as if revealing a closely guarded secret.
The other interview was an online piece featuring Steven Moffat, a BBC television writer and producer. Moffat struck me as almost giddy.
“It's everything you ask for,” said Moffat. “They say be careful what you wish for. No. Don't be careful what you wish for. Absolutely wish for stuff.”
As a published author, I understand their excitement. I’ve never forgotten the rush I felt the first time I landed an article in a magazine, or saw my byline on a newspaper story, or beheld my first novel on a bookshelf. Make the mistake of asking me about my latest short story, and you’ll be subjected to a rapid-fire dissertation delivered with a broad grin.
So it’s both amusing and puzzling to me when I hear about (and at times encounter) the deplorable state of writing in business—and, I’m sad to say, in the communications field. Some reports have estimated the cost to business of following up on poor writing by employees as much as $3.1 billion per year.
A portion of the blame lies with our education system. As instructors are pressured to “teach to the test,” good writing doesn’t get the attention it should.
But I think there’s another element at play: the corporate world’s misguided vision of quality prose. In short, never settle for a simple word when a six-syllable one will do.
My corporate career began after a few years as a journalist. Reporters learn how to convey complex ideas in clear, simple language. When I tried to do the same in a company setting, the red ink flowed freely. It took awhile for me to realize that many corporate leaders prefer ambiguity; it gives them room to waffle.
Fortunately, I had colleagues who fought that mindset, and I gladly joined the fight. Sure, sometimes I had to succumb to “corporatespeak” to satisfy a superior. But as I look back, I believe sanity prevailed more often than not.
And best of all, the joy of writing—and writing well—wasn’t beaten out of me.
So if I dare take Steven Moffat at his word, I’ll hazard a wish: that the new generation of professional communicators embrace that joy and be true champions of great writing.