That George Orwell has a lot to answer for. He hated the lies and evasions of politicians and in an attempt (unsuccessful) to call them out on their linguistic ducking and diving, he wrote his famous essay Politics and the English Language.
Revolted by the glib use of language to obscure inconvenient truths, Orwell prescribed a set of rules to ensure dead civilians were called precisely that and not collateral damage. That slumping economies were so described and not as being in negative growth. And that mass sackings weren’t sanitised as workforce rationalisation.
A cursory review of the obfuscations, euphemisms and periphrastic contortions of today’s politicians show that poor old George’s grasp exceeded his reach. Yet there is another group for whom his edicts have become an article of faith. Copywriters.
Plain English, the stripped-down mode of communicating that Orwell gave birth to, is blogged about, included in copywriting books (naming no names) and even has its own campaign. Government writers now purr like pussycats when their efforts to explain taxation are rewarded with a Crystal Mark.
Which is all fine.
As far as it goes.
If you are responsible for explaining housing benefits, short, simple words, bullet points and Anglo Saxon are the order of the day.
If you are writing an ad for pensions, I’d advise you to stick to the principles of Plain English.
If you are writing for readers who don’t have English as their first language, pen polysyllabic passages at your peril.
But what about selling a book about German retail real estate portfolio investing? Which I am doing at the moment.
Writing copy for a magazine aimed at British wine lovers (oenophiles)? Which I’ve done in the past.
Blogging about your approach to copywriting? Which I do all the time.
Tweeting about your life as a writer? Ditto.
Must these, too, be couched in the same, vanilla style?
Or is there room for a little more, how shall I put it, flair? Idiosyncrasy? Chutzpah?
Of course there is!
Plain English is a style of writing, not the style of writing.
I often compare copywriting to carpentry. Both are skilled trades; both demand craftsmanship; both can be learned on the job. Both demand that the practitioner understands the needs of the customer and of the user.
It is 1765. You are an apprentice carpenter. Your master, or mistress, has you making milking stools for a year. Milking stools have three legs. Three is the ideal number of legs for a milking stool (for any chair, in fact). Two and it would require balancing skills better suited to a gymnast, four and it would rockle on the uneven floor of the milking parlour. Three and it’s stable on any surface.
So you learn to make this plain, simple stool. Square-section legs (three of), a round, flat-topped seat. The end. After you have learned this unadorned style, your master/mistress takes you to their workbench where they are turning legs (four of) for a new wheel-backed carver destined for the dining room of a regency paterfamilias. The seat is contoured, the back, decorated; the wood is walnut, richly figured.
“Carve me an acorn,” they say.
“How will this improve the functionality?” you (unwisely) ask.
“It will please the eye,” they say, clipping you round the ear lovingly with a mallet.
In this terse exchange you have prefigured one of the great debates in craft and possibly art for the next 300 years. What is the function of ornamentation?
In music and architecture, ornamentation reached its apogee with the rococo – an overblown style best summed up as, “If it moves, decorate it”.
In design, the movement that exemplifies the rejection of needless decoration is Bauhaus. Under the leadership of German architect and all-round stiff Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus movement adopted as its motto: form follows function. A corollary of this joyless phrase was the idea that ornamentation was anathema.
This is why the South Bank complex in London has all the charm of a prison camp.
But does ornament really serve no purpose?
How about delighting the senses? Stimulating the pleasure centre of our brains? Making the world a more bearable place to live?
These are all excellent reasons to carve acorns on chair arms.
And it’s the same with language.
For government departments, utility companies, local authorities and other bureaucratic institutions, clarity of meaning is paramount. In facts it’s onlymount. We do not need to be charmed, swayed, amused, delighted, filled with wonder or enraptured by council tax bills, explanations of new energy tariffs or vaccination leaflets.
In all these cases the contract, implied or explicit, has already been signed. But in our line of work – where we must gain attention, interest, desire and action; where we must promise, persuade and provoke to action; where originality, creativity and crisp, fresh writing collide with our reader’s scepticism – the contract hasn’t even been drafted.
And it may be that, to make our case, we need to call on humour, allusion, metaphor and metonymy; simile and “silly me”; borrowed words, made-up words; long sentences, one-word sentences; slang, argot, upspeak and leetspeak; lowbrow, middlebrow, highbrow and everythinginbetweenbrow; Latinisms; swearing, blaring, daring; psychology, philosophy, philology, ontology; gonzo and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
Just so long as we know why. And how.
Take social media, for example. People choose to consume your posts. If you only write in Plain English you aren’t giving them very much to consume. A little faux naiveté might be just the ticket. As might some brutish expletives. Or whimsical neologisms. Only you can judge what’s right. Not the Society for Doing Everything Right, the Rudolph Flesch Memorial Trust or the Guild of Pedants. You.
Ditto content marketing. This is as much about personality as persuasion. People trust people they understand. But they also trust people they like. And it’s a lot easier to like someone who entertains us than someone who merely informs us.
Does this mean Plain English has no place in copywriting? Well, duh!
If a client comes to Sunfish for a milking stool, that’s what they get. Short, three-legged, flat, round seat, no ornamentation (and that’s just the copywriter). If she wants an escritoire that makes her feel like Emily Dickinson when she sits at it to write, well, we go to town a little bit. But the drawers still glide shut with a whisper. The hinges lie flush with the wood and have the screw heads all aligned. And the turned feet are adjustable so it does not rock on her uneven study floor.
My advice to young carpenters is this.
Learn to make milking stools. Make lots of milking stools. But remember that there are udder tasks ahead of you.
(Incidentally, this article has a Flesch Reading Ease score of 65.5. Which makes it Plain English.)