Good writing and the death of plain language

I just read the following sentence in some digital strategy PDF thing:

As digital adds value to the customer experience there is an opportunity to amplify what the person experiences on the application.

I have no idea what that means, and I don’t think anyone does. The state of business writing is just abysmal right now. So many words that sound fancy but don’t mean a thing. Here’s another example from something I had to read last week:

Economic volatility plus consumer tech revolution is changing customers’ expectation of brands.

Uh, what?


Anyway, I just started reading William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, a book I should have read a long time ago. First published more than 30 years ago, it’s still engaging and fresh. Consider this passage, which I couldn’t get out of my head as I read through those “digital strategy” documents:

Still, we have become a society fearful of revealing who we are. The institutions that seek our support by sending us their brochures sound remarkably alike, though surely all of them — hospitals, schools, libraries, museums, zoos — were founded and are still sustained by men and women with different dreams and visions. Where are these people? It’s hard to glimpse them among all the impersonal passive sentences that say “initiatives were undertaken” and “priorities have been identified.”

We all need to heed Zinsser’s advice on simple writing:

Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn’t think of saying it may rain. The sentence is too simple—there must be something wrong with it.

But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what — these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.

This is something I want to be a lot more cognisant of in my own writing going forward. So feel free to call me on it when I get too verbose.