thumbs down for bad writing by financial experts

Why experts love bad writing

Many financial marketers and writers complain to me about investment and wealth management experts who love bad writing. Well, maybe they don’t love bad writing, but they insist on jargon-laden, wordy prose, even when offered better alternatives. I’ve tried to provide ammunition for talking experts out of bad writing, in posts like “Seven Ways to Talk Your Financial Execs Out of Jargon and Bad Writing” (free registration with MarketingProfs required) and “Financial jargon killer: The Wall Street Journal.” In this article, I share one author’s take on why people insist on bad writing.

Four reasons for bad writing

Here are some reasons offered by Joseph M. Williams, author of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. He says that the writers:

  1. style towards clarity and grace“…feel compelled to use pretentious language to make ideas that we think are too simple seem more impressive.” By the way, he’s citing author Michael Crichton in this statement.
  2. “…use difficult and therefore intimidating language to protect what they have from those who want a share of it: the power, prestige, and privilege that go with being a part of the ruling class.. We can keep knowledge from those who would use it by locking it up, but we can also hide facts and ideas behind language so impenetrable that only those trained in its use can find them.”
  3.  “…are seized by the memory of an English teacher for whom the only kind of good writing was writing free of errors which only that teacher understood: fused genitives, dangling participles, split infinitives.”
  4. sometimes “experience transient episodes of stylistic aphasia…. This kind of dismaying regression typically occurs when we are writing about errors that we do not entirely understand for readers who do.”

What do YOU think?

Do you think that the reasons suggested by Williams account for financial experts’ insistence on sticking with bad writing? If so, which do you think is the most powerful explanation for their stubbornness? I’ve found pockets of stubbornness across investment, wealth management, and financial planning.

Does Williams miss any explanations? For example, one marketer suggested that experts lack compassion for clients. They don’t appreciate how their jargon makes clients and other readers struggle.

I found another potential explanation in Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. Perhaps they’re using what Pinker calls the classic style instead of the practical style. The classic style contrasts with the practical style in which “the writer’s goal is to satisfy the reader’s need.” Pinker also compares the classic style with the plain style, “where everything is in full view and the writer has worked hard to find something worth showing and the reader needs no help in seeing anything.” These snippets make me prefer the practical and plain styles, but classic style may appeal to some. It has its place, but I don’t think its place is in financial client communications.

Pinker says,

Classic style, Thomas and Turner explain is aristocratic, not egalitarian. “Truth is available to all who are willing to work to achieve it, but truth is certainly not commonly possessed by all and is no one’s birthright.”

I don’t think experts are evil for sticking with hard-to-understand writing styles, including Pinker’s classic style.. I think they haven’t been educated about good writing. As a result, they fall back on the kind of writing that they know best. Also, the senior executives in their firms may not emphasize good writing. It’s hard for experts to invest in better writing when senior management won’t recognize their efforts.

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Image courtesy of aechan/