[Lost in Translation]

[Written while standing on my proverbial soapbox]

An unsung talent of an effective writer is making anything accessible.

Access may seem odd when applied to language since we think of it more in the context of doors or shelves—how it captures an ability or permission to attain what may be denied to another.

Steep in that thought for a moment. Allow me to wax poetic of lessons I didn’t know were lessons at the time but have followed me over an ocean and years to this point (as many do).

This lesson found me in Afghanistan, Spring. And it was March—which I distinctly remember because all the aircrew had mustaches, and it was that blissful time of year when my performance report was due.

Performance reports are the cliff notes of everything noteworthy you accomplished with the last year, and you have eight lines to describe how your work was vital to safeguarding a nation of 330 million people. And these reports, dear reader, are a sight.

I do not have to tell you how much we military folk love our acronyms and brevity terms—the corporate slang of our discourse community, which we understand but the rest of the world seems to look at us cross-eyed as if we’re speaking Greek. And action verbs! Every line starts with one. We spearheaded, quarterbacked, orchestrated tasks because you can’t lead with led more than once—it throws off the feng shui, the aesthetic. 

And since we do more with less, we also say more with less. We speak in bits, and we write in bits too. Requirements is chopped to rqmts; maintenance, weather, and cancel become mx, wx, and canx. And so the result of these reports is often a slew of acronyms and half-baked words and apostrophes to show the es we removed since synched is too long but synch’d is just right. 

By the time we’ve poured our life out into bullets for our supervisors to thrash apart and rewrite anyway, we’ve reduced ourselves to bare fragments, sometimes illegible phrases. 

So there I was. Afghanistan. Spring. March. Mustaches on fighter pilots, stuck in a war. I had placed the last exclamation mark to designate how imperative it was that I get promoted. Having flayed my year’s work into eight lines that seemed perfectly comprehensible to me, I sent it to my supervisor, who shook his head sadly. “You need to write this so anyone can read it,” he said. 

The problem was my community knew what I meant, but performance reports grow legs—they follow you through your career and are reviewed by boards comprised of people who may have little idea of what you do. And sure, there is a legend that may indicate what LRA means, and dictionaries exist, but that isn’t the point. If I wanted to be clear and understood, it was on me to do it—not my audience.

My supervisor spent the next hour turning my awkward abbreviations and acronyms into terms most could grasp, and the final draft did not look like I had smashed my face against the keyboard. And in the end, yes—the content was legible. Easier to grasp. Overall? Better.

Yes, our words make sense to us, but we forget that language is relative.

We conflate speaking with writing: they have different intents that require different approaches. In speech, we can achieve understanding with immediate feedback asking questions, refining our responses—”What I meant to say…” This is what writing lacks. Writing is meant to be self-contained and understood as a single unit without explanation. It’s why grammar is necessary and why our language matters. The writing must speak for itself.

I think about this often because I work in corporate America. I read too many reports that I can barely digest because they are rife with buzz words, concepts aren’t described, the terms the person uses aren’t defined—they are company-specific or corporate jargon. And I wonder how much business is lost in proposals where reviewers are trying to understand what you are proposing because the language is gilded, too heavy to rise.

This same applies to academia and literature. We believe we must conjure the most obscure terms to prove we are intelligent and credible because we have grasped the utility of a thesaurus. And I know this because I have done this, to my dismay. When I look back at all the terms and time I wasted trying to elevate myself, these “fifty-cent words” (as my father calls them) were heavy and dampened my writing. 

We tend to think accessibility is a bad thing—but why? We want our writing to be read. We want people to be moved. We want our proposals to be funded. We want to be heard. So if I leave you with anything, may I suggest considering the following next time you write?

  1. Know your audience. Your audience is whomever you expect to read your writing; they should influence the words you use and how you write. For instance, if you are a medical professional writing for other medical professionals, you can afford to be more technical; however, if you are explaining complex theorems to laypersons, ensure you write so they can access your meaning.
  2. Nix buzzwords and corporate jargon. People complain about kids and their slang, but corporate speech is the professional equivalent. (Fight me.) Internal documents can afford to include this language (if the terms are part of that culture), but external documents need to be free of your company’s isms. And I understand your corporate jargon may be “fun” and “exciting,” but have you ever told a joke that fell flat? It’s the same: You’re the only person vibing while the rest of us shuffle our eyes around, slightly confused.
  3. Define terms. An easy way to ensure shared understanding between you and your audience is to define any terms not in general use. For instance, if you are pitching your company’s product, explain at first mention what that product is and what it does. Don’t treat a proposal like a “choose your own adventure” story. (This is how you lose your audience.) 
  4. Spell out acronyms on their first use. This is standard practice for any style guide: the first time you use an acronym, spell it out with the acronym in parentheses. Your audience will thank you since LRA could mean long-range artillery or Lord’s Resistance Army. Exceptions to this rule are terms / organizations most commonly referenced by their acronyms (e.g., URL) or only known by their acronyms (e.g., SCUBA). For the former, you can always use the acronym first and explain it in parentheses—for instance, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).
  5. When in doubt, have an outsider to your profession / organization read it. If they’re confused, ask them what was confusing. Take their feedback to heart. 

These lessons are primarily applicable to professional contexts but practical in creative writing. Similarly, we bog ourselves down. We forget that someone has to make sense of our creative endeavors. We find new words and try to fit them in, but sometimes this is a bit much.

My good art friend refined these lessons for me while pouring over one of my manuscript drafts. I gild lilies. I overwrite in some cases, but I’m learning to focus on the critical points, remove the chaff. In short, I’m learning to write simply and honestly, allowing my language to breathe.

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