Does Bad Writing Serve A Purpose?

Bad writing has been getting a lot of attention lately. Columns by Natalie Canavor and Jason Fried on the subject in CW online prompted a flurry of comments among IABC members and an article by Charlotte Beugge in the July/August edition of the CorpComms examines how financial service companies can make their writing clearer.

Most of the attention has been focused on reducing jargon, abbreviations and sentence length, while one specific reason why some business writers produce difficult-to-understand hogwash has been overlooked. And that is, some business writers write badly because they want to.

In the first year of my MBA programme, a professor in the accounting department argued before our class against the finance department’s mantra that free markets were “perfect”. This kind of thinking was wrong, the accounting prof said, as it was based on the idea that markets have access to all the information they need to make intelligent decisions.

“How can the markets have all the information they need,” the prof asked, “when they get that information from accountants? And we lie!”

A shocking revelation indeed to hear from an accountant.

But the more palatable truth is, financial statements are required to give a true picture of the financial state of a company, but AT THE SAME TIME give as positive a picture of the company as possible.

How do you walk the line between these two ideas? Simple. Have all the relevant information available, but make bad news as hard to discern as possible. Playing (legally) with the numbers is one way, but another trick is simply to bury bad news under a bushel of abstruse text.

After leaving finance and majoring in the less self-deluded field of accounting, I would be shown in my financial analysis class several examples where the market was fooled into thinking a particular company was in good nick, only to have the rug pulled out from underneath them a bit later.

Why?

The information needed to see that something was wrong was already there in black and white in the annual report sometimes years beforehand. It was just very few people had read that pertinent piece of information. And very few people read that information because very few people could find it or understand it.

The accountants had done their job.

Naturally, I am not advocating this sort of thing. But this should be a caveat for both readers and writers. For readers, if a business’ information is hard to read, they may be hiding something. For writers, if what you write is unclear, the wary reader my think you’re hiding something even when you’re not.