Clear writing and integrity: An investment opportunity

Clear writing and integrity: An investment opportunity

By Donald Powers

You want to trust those you invest with. You want to be sure they mean what they say when they tell you what they will do with your money. You want clarity on their intentions.

Clear writing is a business imperative. It is a bond of trust between an enterprise and its customers and clients, its investors and stakeholders. It is a sign of integrity and corporate responsibility, drawing the non-specialist reader into a circle of understanding. It provides a reputational and competitive advantage.

Which makes it all the more surprising that World Bank chief economist Paul Romer was recently relieved of management control over the Bank’s research division for insisting that its authors write more concisely. Romer is not the first to identify an uncomfortable degree of jargon and abstraction in the Bank’s writing. In a study published in 2016, Dominique Pestre and Franco Moretti analysed 65 years of the Bank’s annual reports to highlight a rise in ‘management discourse’ against a decline in factual precision. They noted, among other things, an increased use of jargon and acronyms, less reference to specific time frames, and a tendency to turn verbs into nouns, which leads to more passive sentences.

For Romer, excessive use of the word ‘and’ is one symptom of the malaise in World Bank writing. As part of his demand for clearer writing, he asked authors of research reports to ensure that ‘and’ accounts for no more than 2.6 percent of a report’s total words (prior to this directive, ‘and’ on average accounted for 7 percent of the total word count).

Using fewer ‘ands’ is not, on its own, a recipe for clarity and concision. An inoffensive, necessary word, ‘and’ is an elementary way of connecting clauses to form more complex utterances. The problem is that an overreliance on ‘and’ can foster lazy writing – at the cost of the reader’s attention and understanding. Unlike its fellow coordinating conjunctions ‘but’ and ‘or’, which set up oppositions, qualifications and steps in logic, ‘and’ sets one clause alongside another without discriminating between them. We all know how young children love to use ‘and’ as they sort their experiences into successions of events with the same syntactic status. Hemingway, the journalist turned novelist, used ‘and’ to famous effect in telling stories with beguiling, childlike simplicity.

Like ‘and’, neither acronyms nor technical terms are inherently problematic. A neat shorthand for unwieldy official names, acronyms quicken a text; scattered too freely, they become a plague. Similarly, specialised technical language only becomes a blight – becomes ‘jargon’ – when it densens and obscures more than it usefully specifies.

The authors of a World Bank report cannot afford to be long-winded, inexact or confusing. In a report addressing complex, global problems, a great deal hinges on a clear message convincingly conveyed – research credibility, investments, the success of development initiatives. This is as true for the World Bank as it is for writing for business, government and other sectors.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s Plain Language Handbook recognises this point when it notes that ‘because many investors are neither lawyers, accountants, nor investment bankers, we need to start writing disclosure documents in a language investors can understand: plain English’.

Using clear language does not mean writing in a way that is neutral or unsophisticated: it means making one’s meaning immediately understandable. It means using direct, concrete language to talk not around but to the point. Someone with integrity is someone you can bank on. And integrity begins with clear communication.