Los Angeles, 1939
For the last several weeks, I’ve been teaching a new, never-before-offered class at the Los Angeles Public Library called “Reading to Write.” The goal is to connect people (adults) who want to write better — at work and elsewhere — with writing techniques used by great authors in books that are fun to read. The idea behind this class isn’t to make creative writers out of normal mentally healthy people. The idea is to equip them with effective ways to express an idea, describe a situation, or state an opinion.
To that end, we’re reading detective fiction. Great detective fiction, starting with The Big Sleep, the 1939 novel by Raymond Chandler about private detective Philip Marlowe who’s hired by a wealthy old General to handle a blackmailer but is quickly embroiled in one murder (of course!), then two, and one intriguing deception after another.
As a writer, Chandler uses adjectives liberally. (For those of you who may have forgotten the technical function of an adjective, it’s a word that describe things.) In Chandler’s writing, they’re everywhere, but they’re never extraneous or unnecessary. More importantly, they’re never predictable. Nothing tired, stale, or blah. Chandler selects adjectives that are refreshing and precise, thereby creating descriptions that get our attention and stay with us.
“The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom,” he writes. The plants had “nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.” I count more than half a dozen adjectives and a simile (“like the newly washed fingers”) in those couple of sentences. Have you ever thought about orchids that way? Cloying smell? Meaty? Dead men’s fingers? If you cut any one of those adjectives out, the effect would be far less striking.
Transcending the Ordinary
There’s not much call in tech and engineering for writing about dead men’s fingers and cloying smells, so what’s useful about reading Raymond Chandler for people whose day-to-day writing assignments are, say, requirements documents, proposals, or technical specs? So that writers of project deliverables and reports can be inspired to think bigger, not to settle for the same ho-hum colorless sentences tech writers usually opt for. Everyday business writers turn to great writers for the inspiration to use an adjective now and then and to choose something other than cheap easy verbs.
Think about it this way. If you wanted to learn to ski, you’d take lessons from a competent instructor. Then, armed with a better understanding of skiing, you’d watch the winter Olympics and be impressed by the feats of extraordinary skiers in a way you had never been impressed before. And although you might not attempt those exact moves yourself, you’d be learning by watching and inspired by their achievement, incorporating what you could into your own skiing.
Either that or you’d be totally bummed out as you realize you’re not going to medal in skiing during this lifetime. But assuming that’s not the case….
Or let’s say you wanted to study a musical instrument, and so you’d find a capable teacher. Not a virtuoso. When you want to really enjoy listening to your chosen instrument being played, you’ll probably listen to a great master, not your teacher. And what we learn from listening to virtuosos we can, to some extent, use ourselves. Play this faster, more softly, more patiently, crisply. We learn that sort of thing from the greats, and we can take inspiration from them, even if we’re not planning to become a great master ourselves.
So back to great detective novels and engineering writing. Even if we think our need for language is limited and pedestrian, great writers can inspire us to transcend the ordinary. Simply put, we can learn from the greats, even if we think that, for our purposes, there’s no need to become one.
If you were writing requirements documentation describing the necessary functions of a system upgrade, there are no doubt requirements in this inventory you will describe as must-haves and others that aren’t. In your document, you really want to drive home the point that the must-haves can’t be overlooked or compromised, and they can’t be left out to accommodate future budget constraints. What you need is fresh, attention-getting language to communicate the urgency of the must-haves, so you reach deeper into the lexicon than usual and choose some punchy words: essential, obligatory, inarguably requisite, uncompromisable, indispensable — any one of which is stronger than “required.”
An average technical writer can find in great books the inspiration to select and employ attention-getting words and perhaps, too, the courage to challenge the status quo and actually use them. There’s no rule that says business documents must be barren fields strewn with colorless vocabulary. You could argue that technical material (specs, requirements, etc.) calls for some specific, unalterable vocabulary, and I’d agree. But just because that is so doesn’t mean every phrase must conform to narrow vocabulary choices, and to impose the same kind of limitations on everything — status reports, RFPs, process documentation — helps guarantee that no one reads any of them willingly.
How-To Writing Books
If great detective novels aren’t your thing, or if reading great writing is something you hope to have time for some day but can’t squeeze in now, there are other ways to come at the problem: the how-to books.
Two years ago, Inc. magazine published a list of eight how-to books aimed at improving your writing. There are many good choices on this list, though Business Writing for Dummies isn’t particularly helpful for project deliverables, and Words That Sell is for marketing writing more so than the sort of thing engineers regularly tackle. From this list of eight, I’d put the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing first. Right up front, the author says: “You may think you shouldn’t fuss about your writing — that good enough is good enough. But that mind-set is costly. Supervisors, colleagues, employees, clients, partners, and anyone else you communicate with will form an opinion of you from your writing. If it’s artless and sloppy, they may assume your thinking is the same.”
That’s not an impression you want to leave with anyone.
If you want the particular rules of writing (form, style, and such), there’s The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, also on this Inc. list, which can be useful when tackling project documentation.
So, yes, you’ll get good advice in the how-to books, but you won’t get a kick in the pants to take your writing to a new level. That, I still insist, comes from reading great writers.
What the Blonde was Thinking
“The blonde opened her eyes and looked at him with vague but uncomplimentary speculation,” Chandler writes in chapter 16 of The Big Sleep. What a sentence! He could have written, “The blonde looked at him,” and we’d know what she did, but we’d be lacking the important information that tells us what the blonde was thinking.
Even if you’re not writing about blondes, you can make your writing more compelling. You just have to find inspiration in the right place, and for that there’s always the nearest library or your favorite (probably online) bookstore.
Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.