Are You Guilty of “Esoterrorism”?

Got this great guest post from Wisconsin FLCW Clayton Grow. Great message certainly for all the commercial freelancers writing for technical clients, but really applicable to ANY of us. Every industry has its jargon and corporate-speak, and even if it’s not technical, it can still be just as incoherent to an uninitiated reader. And that’s the key – always know who the audiences are – all of them. Many may be fine with “inside” language, but if others will be reading it who aren’t, you need to factor that in. After all, the whole point is to make things clearer, not muddier. Or as the tongue-in-cheek saying reminds, “Eschew Obfuscation.” 😉 Enjoy!

Winning the War on Esoterrorism:
One Writer’s Efforts to Stamp Out Excessive Cleverness

When I suggested adding a sentence to a press release to explain why boiler short-cycling is such a bad thing for a hot water heating system, my commercial writing client looked at me a little dumbfounded. He said that any HVAC technician would know exactly why it’s a bad thing, so why should we waste our word count? Then we talked about how the readers of these press releases aren’t exclusively HVAC techs; they are also building owners and building operations committees. We agreed that all parties involved in the equipment purchasing process should be educated (or re-educated) on the urgency of installing equipment to prevent boiler short-cycling.

Engineers pride themselves on their ability to use appropriate jargon. If you’ve ever walked into a conversation between two engineers working in the same field, you might get the sense that they’re from a different planet. They use terms like “modulus of elasticity” and “liquid desiccant dehumidification” in places where most people would use words like “bendy” and “deodorant.”

This esoteric style of communication (a.k.a. “esoterrorism”) directed towards those “in the know” worked well for me as full-time engineer. But when I became a freelance copywriter, I quickly came to the realization—with the help of our very own Peter Bowerman—that most people that read my stuff don’t care how many fifty-dollar engineering terms I know. They need to grasp the details of my piece quickly and clearly, without having to pull out their engineering pocket reference guide.

So I made a personal pact to obliterate the obscure references in my work and directly demonstrate my intentions using clear, concise, reader-friendly language. To remind myself of my new resolve, I made myself a little motivational sign at my work station.*

This sign has helped me put myself in my readers’ shoes and stop trying to be the cleverest cat in the room. I write mainly for the engineering and construction industries, so my audience consists of building owners, contractors, developers and city officials, as well as engineers. It’s safe to say that a large majority of my audience is better off without the jargon and engineering humor, so the more I strive for clarity, the more effective I am as a writer.

Esoterrorism may not be a problem for most freelance writers, but I’m certain there are many writing for technical fields that may benefit from being constantly reminded to “be clear, not clever.” This new labor for limpidity has helped me to come up with new ways to improve my clients’ more technically dense material. When working on technical documents, I’ve suggested brief definitions to accompany some of the lesser-known terminology, and these suggestions have been welcomed and widely implemented.

In a proposal I edited and re-wrote for a wind farm contractor, one of the steps needed to attach the wind turbine base to the foundation read simply “torqueing and tensioning.” Because the gentlemen who provided me with this section of text had been erecting wind turbines for many years, he, of course, knew exactly what “torqueing and tensioning” meant, and felt no need to explain it further on the proposal.

But then we talked a little more about it and concluded that not everyone reviewing this proposal has witnessed the entire construction process of a wind turbine, and may have no idea what “torqueing and tensioning” is. So, I added a sentence explaining that proper torqueing and tensioning of the anchor bolts was critical to ensuring the concrete base didn’t crack under too much tensile stress. It didn’t make the proposal any more interesting, but it conveyed the contractor’s thorough understanding of wind turbine technology to the developer.

People working in specialized fields often forget that their knowledge is unique, and often needs to be explicitly explained to many of their readers. These readers are potential customers, who will be grateful for the information we impart.

*I actually put this sign up well before the recent news of events overseas, but I figured I’d jump at the chance to blend current events with some writing advice.

What are some examples of clarity you’ve suggested to your clients?

Do you have a unique way to remind yourself to be clear?

Has anyone personally thanked you for clarifying a challenging concept in a piece you’ve written?

Have you been guilty of “esoterrorism” in your writing?

About the author:
Clayton Grow put his engineering stamp in the drawer to help explain the world of engineering and construction to engineers and non-engineers alike. More info about this freelancer’s fight against esoterrorism at www.TheWritingEngineer.com.

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