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

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

14 replies
  1. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    My sincere apologies for the snafu on this post, NOT that I have ANY idea what happened… I officially posted it, SAW it posted up there, sent the link to the guest blogger, and HE said it looked great – and then, sometime after that, it just vanished. But, I restored an earlier version and we’re back in business.

    So, please come back, take a look and weigh in!


  2. Carolyn Frith
    Carolyn Frith says:

    Even non-technical fields have what I call “internal speak.” When I was still in my corporate job for a company that made medicine cabinets and lighting. We talked about having the perfect lighting for “grooming tasks”. Luckily I hired a good copywriter and he was nice enough to point out that it sounded very “clinical.” As soon as he said this I remember how weird this phrase had sounded when I first joined the company. So, with my blessing, he changed it to something much more appropriate like “ideal lighting for putting on makeup and shaving.”

    I had a project recently where I was writing press releases for a horse show, Dressage at Devon. I am a rider and was trying very hard to put everything in everyday language. After writing I gave my press release to my editor (also known as husband) and he said “sit the trot” sounded funny. I had totally forgotten that “sit the trot” was equine language. With his insight I was able to change it to “the rider absorbs the motion of the trot.” A little longer but most people would have a better chance of understanding what was going on.

  3. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    You could say Esoterrorism is my whole brand. 🙂 My tagline is Keep it simple, clear & uniquely yours. I think you can (and should) keep it unique to you (in this case, you being the client), but it doesn’t mean it can’t be simple and clear to others. You can be clear AND clever. 🙂

    Since my niche is largely health care, acronyms, medical speak or legalese from health care legislation can all be a big problem. One of my favorite compliments occurred during a presentation I was giving on the privacy legislation, the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA). An audience member got up and thanked me for taking a complex subject and making it simple. A brand was born. 🙂

    Thank you for sharing an insightful post, Clayton.

  4. Lori
    Lori says:

    Great post, Clayton! I’ve been an advocate of stamping out strings of jargon for a long time (since the Dot Com heydey), but now I have a term to attach to it. 🙂

    I have had to tell clients that what they’re presenting isn’t understandable to the lay person. Most of them get it. However, I did work with a client once who insisted on changing the descriptions to the point of them being completely wrong for the industry we were writing for. If I hadn’t said something, we would have been embarrassed when it hit print. These are industry-accepted usages, and while his editing was correct in the consumer sense, it would have smacked of amateurishness in the industry sense. And my name would have been on it.

    Maybe because of those experiences, I don’t have to remind myself to be clear. I came into an industry with no prior knowledge of the terminology or buzz words. Because the dot com boom was a period of paragraphs of unintelligible terms, I rebeled early. LOL

    I have been thanked a number of times for bringing clarity to projects – most recently two weeks ago, when I helped a marketing guru revise a press release. Sometimes it takes being one step further outside the project to see the clearer path.

    Because I write for technical magazines, I do have to use some of the terminology. But in everything I write, I pretend there’s one person reading it who’s just stepped into the industry right out of college. I explain it all. It’s what I was taught to do in J school, and what I would want to see in an article if I were new to an industry.

    However, I did see an article last week that drove me nuts. It started out talking about something in the industry using a particular acronym. Nowhere in that article did anyone explain the acronym. I had no idea what was being discussed, and I lost interest immediately.

  5. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Great stuff everyone!

    Lori, I do the same thing you do – write for that one person who might not be familiar with the jargon. That said, sometimes, it’s fine to use jargon if the piece is indeed esoteric, and WILL only be read by those “in the know.” This is more likely to happen with internal documents, since when writing for public consumption, best to write to the lowest common denominator.

    And in fact, I realized something early on in my career when writing a technical manual for a software company (which give me some firsthand experience in doing something I realized I had ZERO interest in doing on any kind of ongoing basis…). And it’s something to keep in mind when deciding to take on work for which you have little background.

    The company was a bit hesitant to hire me, given my lack of experience in their field, but I sold it to them like this: it’s precisely because I have no experience in your field that I’m THE perfect person to write this. Why? Because I will make absolutely no assumptions on the part of the reader that they’re familiar with this, that or the other. As I learn it, I’ll explain it in full.

    In those cases (and assuming it’s not a ridiculously steep learning curve to get your arms around a particular technical subject) , it’s far more important to have strong writing skills in general than that specific technical knowledge, per se.

    Sure, ideally, the client finds a copywriter with that background AND the strong writing skills to boot, but when maximum clarity is required because the piece is speaking to an uninitiated audience, in a perverse sort of way, it can often be advantageous to know less about the subject. Especially when you’re getting into detailed explanations of processes.

    And you’re right, Carolyn, it’s not just technical fields with language of their own. Any field with a unique terminology can be guilty of that “internal speak” and often they’ll let it seep into their writing – in many cases, because on some elitist level, even if unconsciously, they like having a language of their own…;)

    And Cathy – that’s a great brand! Clarity is gold for any business. As the old adage from my sales days reminds, “A confused prospect never buys.” Wise words to remember.


  6. Will Kenny
    Will Kenny says:

    I’ve long argued that being the ignoramus in the room can be one of the most valuable services a consultant can offer, whether the specific service is copywriting or training development or web design. Engineers are a challenge, but so are the clinicians at companies that develop medical products, product experts in financial services, and so on.

    They all need someone to keep asking “What does that mean?” and “Why is that important?”, someone persistent enough to wear them down to the level of their audience.

  7. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Love it, Will! “The ignoramus in the room…” But, you’re absolutely right. One of THE single biggest mistakes so many companies make is assuming that because THEY marinate in this stuff all day long, that the rest of the world does as well. And so they’ll end up writing stuff that assumes far too much knowledge on the part of their audience than is the case.

    How they come to this preposterous conclusion (i.e., if they thought about it for, like, five seconds, they’d realized how flawed a thought process it is…) is beyond me, but that doesn’t stop it from happening far more than it should.

    Yes, sometimes the hardest thing for anyone to do is to step back from what they do and know so well, clear their mind of all that and imagine seeing it for the first time. And if so, what would you need to see first, then second, third, etc.? But, it’s what has to happen if you want to connect with an audience, especially when you’re talking a technical subject, but for any other product as well for that matter.


  8. Ken Norkin
    Ken Norkin says:

    It’s been my experience that a lot of people hide behind jargon. They’ll use insidey terms and acronyms — maybe even correctly in context — without really knowing what they mean and certainly without being to explain them or why they matter.

    As with the great example of “torqueing and tensioning” above, I try to explain, define or provide clarifying context for terms for several reasons: (1) as already stated, the reader is a prospective customer, so it’s a good idea to make whatever you’re saying perfectly clear; (2) the reader may not actually know the information you’re sharing, so you’ve just made them better informed and better able to choose your product or service; (3) even if the immediate reader does know what all the tech terms mean, there’s a good chance that a higher up in the purchase decision process doesn’t. You’re writing not just for the technically literate buyer but for the less tech savvy business decision maker they report to; and (4) it shows that the company publishing the piece knows what it’s talking about — which is a big contributor to making the sale.

  9. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Hear, hear, Brother Norkin! 😉 Great points AND reminders of all that’s at stake, and all we need to consider when we write copy.

    And I agree completely that many people do hide behind jargon. When they’ve spent years working in a world that’s developed its own language to a large extent, AND through a sort of implicit (though bizarre) understanding, embraced and fine-tuned the art of saying nothing while sounding good doing it, many of these folks just slip into it easily, and I daresay, don’t realize how inaccessible such writing is. So it becomes our job (IF they’ll let us DO our job) to figuratively smack them and say, “Snap out of it!”


  10. Demian
    Demian says:

    So glad to see a post about this. I developed some of my copywriting chops working in the marketing arm of insurance agencies. Sometimes the sales people would bring by their sales letters for me to proofread because I was that “writer guy” and “had a way with words”, etc. Their originals: insurance industry technical terms, insider jargon, pompous phrasing and a whole host of assumptions made about the insurance and risk management savvy of the reader. It took quite a bit of effort to get across the notion that their readers were business owners and office managers who bought insurance. Intelligent laymen, certainly, but with only a cursory knowledge of the insurance world, how it works, and it’s terminology.
    I would go out with them on sales calls from time to time and I found they did the same thing in their in-person sales presentations. When I questioned them about this, I discovered that there was an underlying assumption at work. They felt that the only way they could win the sale was by convincing the prospective client that they were knowledgeable, seasoned experts. So, they reasoned that by spewing lot of product and industry knowledge at their prospects, even to the point of overwhelm, the prospect would somehow extrapolate the notion that “these guys must knows they’re talking about” and would surely buy from them. A lot of assumptions. Good post and good comments, guys.

  11. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks Demian,

    So, esoterrorism obviously takes many forms, as evidenced by your story. Interesting. So did this “dazzle with brilliance/baffle with B.S.” actually work? I imagine it probably did to a certain extent or they’d have abandoned the strategy. Yet another example of countless all around us demonstrating how little attention people pay to audience and speaking in a way the audience can hear you. Though, in a perverse sort of way, maybe these salespeople of yours figured they were doing just that! 😉

    Thanks for weighing in!


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