Sunday, May 18, 2008

Style vs. Substance: A Thought

“When is style over substance acceptable in business writing?” asked Olasupo Adewolu, an engineer from New York City Transit, in one of my Executive Communication classes. What an excellent question, especially since when saying we like someone’s writing we're actually talking about style.

The answer to Mr. Adewolu’s question: Never. The point of business writing is substance—so if style gets in the way of substance, you’re distracting the reader. Here is an example:

It is a propitious moment in our organizational history for our reasonable committee members to contemplate a decision whether or not we should renew our contract with our current software vendor.

This 31-word sentence is laden with stylistic pitfalls. Consider what the writer really wants: a decision by the committee. With that purpose in mind, he should get to the point. Here are at least six of his stylistic problems:

1. The writer does not actually say the word decision until Word 18.

2. The nature of the decision, renew our contract, does not appear until Words 24-26.

3. The word propitious is overdone, especially when it places more focus on the moment in history than the desired action.

4. The phrase in our organizational history is a complete waste—even if timing were of the essence. This decision is not a historical lesson; it is a routine business practice.

5. The adjective reasonable clearly kowtows to the committee members—it’s almost laughable.

6. The phrase whether or not is most often a redundancy. Even current is a wasted word because the committee would not be renewing a contract with any other vender.

The writer draws more attention to himself than to his point through an overwrought vocabulary, an obsequious attitude, redundant expressions, and, most important, a delayed request. He could have achieved his point in half the words:

Our committee must decide now about whether to renew the contract with our software vendor.

This 15-word sentence gets to the point with blazing clarity. A multi-million, multi-year contract is at stake, so make your case plainly. The substance should dictate the style, not the other way around.

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