TL;DR: for more impactful content, delete irrelevant rhetorical questions and fabricated paradigms and replace them with information that adds value for the reader.
In part one of the L&T guide to writing effectively, we walked through some dos — techniques that help us to write faster and more effectively. This article will walk through three of the don’ts that get in the way of effective writing: invented paradigms, preaching, and creeping rhetorical questions.
The thing that connects all of these tendencies is the fact that they violate the cardinal imperative of writing: to convey information. Invented paradigms hide less-than-watertight reasoning; creeping rhetorical questions instruct the reader to ask something irrelevant; and preaching waylays the reader while skimping on important facts.
Invented Paradigms and Invented Worlds
When grasping for something to help them introduce a new concept or idea, writers often accidentally invent a paradigm or “era.” This is misguided for two reasons: first off, it’s more useful to focus on the facts at hand or examples of what you’re talking about instead of making sweeping generalizations. And second, when writers say we are “In a time of…,” we usually aren’t.
Take this example from the wild:
…because in a world where customers are in control, happy customers are the biggest opportunity for business growth.
First off, this is completely false — customers are generally not “in control,” nor is this the condition in the whole world.
In the article, the writer makes great points about the way customers make decisions, such as the fact that customers trust their friends more than salespeople. In this case, they could make a more effective point by actually talking about the specifics, rather than generalizing so much that they lose the point. This might be a better way to put it:
Because customers trust their friends more than salespeople, companies that establish a trusting relationship with their customers will be positioned to grow more effectively.
Avoiding invented paradigms forces a writer to actually specify the information that they want to put across — and sometimes, when forced to express your point plainly, you might find that the point is plain wrong. Other times, you might be compelled to tighten up your argument and focus on the facts.
Creeping Rhetorical Questions
Rhetorical questions are a powerful form — they work in part because people naturally respond to a question by answering it or, if they don’t know the answer, pondering what the answer could be. But writers get into trouble when they ask rhetorical questions that:
- The reader would have no reason to ask or actually ponder.
- Can be easily answered with a “yes” or “no.”
Betteridge’s Law neatly describes the latter example in the case of newspaper headlines, where most headlines, e.g. Have we found a cure for AIDS? Can be answered with a swift “No.”
Here’s our example from the wild (from an article on getting a job in PR if you’re new to the industry):
But how do you know what a job is actually like if you’ve never had any experience working it?
You can’t! This rhetorical question is completely useless and adds nothing to the story.
Usually, writers use rhetorical questions as a way to move their argument forward or to launch into the body of their piece. In most cases, the writing would be much stronger if they just got on with it and started their argument, rather than asking a (usually irrelevant) question beforehand.
When making recommendations in written form, it’s easy to start preaching. However, preaching is usually inappropriate unless you are a self-help blogger — or an actual priest. In essence, writers do more work when they stop preaching and start reporting.
At its best, preaching results in benign content that’s less effective than if the writer had gotten straight to the point. At its worst, preaching will alienate readers who are not in the market for unsolicited advice.
Here’s another example from the wild:
Every company should have a unique culture that speaks to its core beliefs. But before you can start building that culture, you need to know what you stand for.
The problem with this sentence is that it gives us some of the what and the who, but skips the why. Why should a company have a unique culture? Why are core beliefs relevant to culture? Aren’t all company cultures unique, by nature?
We could rewrite the first sentence like this:
Companies run much better when their culture reflects the values of the company founders, for two reasons: because culture must be modeled by leaders in order to take hold, and because a mismatch of values and culture creates confusion that impedes progress towards organizational goals.
By digging into the facts, the writer moves from the role of a preacher to that of a journalist — providing more information while refraining from bossing people around.
As outlined in my previous article on writing, many of the things that hurt a writer’s ability to put across information actually come from attempts to make the process of writing easier, or to get started in the first place. As such, tearing down the scaffolding that supports an article will force the ideas it contains to support themselves, unaided by fluffy or redundant turns of speech.