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You have to know so much to write so little.

I remember feeling a rush of this freshening breeze in 1967, and how I believed the time was right to put together a short piece I wouldn't have proposed to my conservative employers a few years earlier.

It was cocktail time that St. Valentine's Day, a Thursday it was, and shivery cold as a raw, salty Boston Harbor wind whirled westward up Huntington Avenue's trolley tracks to rattle the glass doors of the Midtown Motor Inn there on Copley Square's cheapside.

You'll probably guess the year when I mention that the industrial editors hurrying inside to their monthly meeting would shell out-this is for parking, dinner, and program-$3.95 apiece. (Nice try, partner: It was 1963.)

With seventy-five people expected, and the guest speaker skimming a mere $25, the Massachusetts Industrial Editors Association was assured a solid profit, for once. What else was assured was the membership's official introduction to the cusp of the Age of Aquarius ... at least from the standpoint of language usage. That night, you see, the man at the lectern would be Philip B. Gove, Ph.D., editor in chief of the new and scandalously controversial Webster's Third New International Dictionary, published just months earlier.

Few people then were aware, of course, that hippiedom was just starting its roll down the runway. Indeed, Gove's new lexicon had barely snatched it up and wedged it into the Addenda, informing sedulous scholars that the hippie was "a young person who rejects the mores of established society (as by dressing unconventionally or favoring communal living), adheres to a nonviolent ethic, and often uses marijuana or psychedelic drugs; broadly, a long-haired unconventionally dressed young person." Webster's 3 could have been christened the first hippie lexicon, in a manner of speaking: It was young; its type style was unconventional, what with God being the only capped entry; and it definitely rejected the mores of traditionalists in the realm of language usage. Its greeting from the press and from certain other word freaks, however, was the antipode of nonviolence.

Decade's Uncivil Write'

The principal point of discussion was that W-3 was too permissive. Editor Gove regarded the function of his heroic work to be that of an accurate recorder of language-spelling, pronunciation, and meaning. A dictionary, Dr. Gove wrote, "should have no traffic with ... artificial notions of correctness or superiority. It must be descriptive and not prescriptive."

But opposition to his viewpoint was heavy and widespread. Two months after the Massachusetts industrial editors heard Gove declare "I am not going to defend the Third Edition: It speaks for itself," the Atlantic Monthly showcased Wilson Follett's disparaging critique for W-3 under the headline "Sabotage in Springfield" (W-3 was published in Springfield, Mass., by G. & C. Merriam Co., now Merriam-Webster Inc.). Follett, an author and editor and authority on usage, observed, "What will rank as the great event of American linguistic history in this decade, and perhaps in this quarter century, is in many crucial particulars a very great calamity." (Later, the Atlantic would set aside space for Bergen Evans's contrary opinion, "But What's a Dictionary For?")

One legacy of W-3, in the eyes of many editors and writers, was a blurring of the distinctions between good usage and bad usage, a "cheapening of the English language," as a Boston Globe editorial put it on February 16, 1963.

If W-3 did play a part in the softening attitudes toward prescriptive language usage that flourished during the sentimental, psychedelic sixties-one wag called it the decade's leading uncivil write"-it was not the proximate cause. Trends toward what was avant garde, toward communal living, toward broader civil liberties were also players, and these spawned not only new perceptions about verbal expression, but new thinking about what stories should be told. Students and young practitioners of corporate communication did not ignore these exciting rhythms.

Where's Your White Hood?

It was midsummer. I'd been talking on the telephone with one of our agents in the Detroit, Mich. office, a bright guy in his late twenties ... new home, joyously married and with two little rug-runners to help prove it. If you remember this time, you know Detroit was smoking and bleeding under a series of riots; looters ran amok, and Michigan Governor George Romney had called up the National Guard to help restore order. I sat transfixed as the man related how he and his wife and youngsters had stood at their living room windows the day before, staring wide-eyed out onto their front lawn where three helmeted soldiers-their eyes assessing a key road intersection just down the street-were methodically setting up a .50-caliber machine gun.

The man was eloquent. As you can imagine, the story just about wrote itself .. how one of "our families" had gotten through some genuinely frightening hours, and how their feelings about the curfew and the fearsome rioting could still accommodate more than one point of view. Routinely I went in to run the story past my supervisor, a lanky, sandy haired, easy-talking 45-year-old ex-midwesterner who'd been elected a VP largely because he could give an impressive speech. "Oh, yes," he smiled from behind his pool-table-sized desk. "Say, those blacks are really raising hell out there, aren't they?" He skimmed the copy, glanced away, then said, "Tell you what; let me think on this a little bit and I'll see you later, OK?"

I bounced in next day, still reflecting happily on the rare opportunity I'd seized; the heady scent of a real live story, something with dimension, currency, and guts, still fresh in my nostrils. Then in walked the old man. He tossed my two sheets of paper down in front of me: "Woody, I don't think we should run this at this time." "But, boss!" I protested. "Why not? It's current, we look good, we show both sides, employees will ..... .. No, not now," he interrupted. "Right, I hear you," I implored, still unbelieving, "but do you think later? This is an apolitical piece..." I glanced up, and I saw his eyes, then. Flat, unblinking, like a snake's ... sniper's eyes ... I remember thinking Where's your white hood, you s. o. b. He leaned forward and snapped, "Don't run that," turned, and strode away.

I crushed my treasured pages into a golfball and furiously drilled it into the wastebasket. Bob Dylan's times may have been a-changin', but the clearing breeze had not aired out all the comers of Corpo USA. I picked up the phone, called the young man in Detroit and told him a lie.

This morning I looked at another artifact of the sixties, one that reminded me of Alphonse Karr's celebrated assertion that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It was a copy of Personnel Journal dated November 1967. One of the articles set forth six requirements for a successful company publication: 1) Clearly state objectives; 2) A competent editor; 3) Access to top management; 4) The master plan; 5) The "anticipating" function; and 6) Know your audience.

Twenty-three years later, who would tinker with these verities or with certain other enduring truths of our trade? Has that dreadful gauntlet called "copy approval" changed in any substantive way? I don't think so. Not so long as Bink Botherly's Marketing-driven changes incite Accounting's Howie Struggles to edit a few lines, leaving Linda Grimbrow in Human Resources no choice but to jerk some words around to certify her skill as a rewritist. And though the world is virtually free of small pox, we have yet to exterminate the mean-spirited staff officer who, having just read a pretty damned good piece of copy, must demonstrate a certain superiority by sniffing, "Oh, I don't know ... it's just not awfully ... creative."

With the advent of plain language laws in the late 1970s, many corporate communication people met or rediscovered Rudolf Flesch's "The Art of Plain Talk and The Art of Readable Writing," as well as the "fog index" devised by the late Robert Gunning (and then perpetuated by Douglas Mueller, of the Gunning-Mueller Clear Writing Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif.). At least in the insurance industry, state regulators imposed a crushing test on the linguistic resourcefulness of sales promotion writers and other marketing scribes. Policies sent to Massachusetts policy-holders had to be recast so that "The text achieves a minimum Flesch scale readability score of 50 [C. 175 & 2B Mass. Insurance Laws]." This usually meant two things: shorter sentences and fewer polysyllabic words. What agony it was to try to work around beneficiary and policyholder, for which there are few, if any, synonyms. And oh! The glorious quixotic sorties into the corporate law department wherein opposing copy-views clanged like rams' horns on some windy alp. Given their superior knowledge of policy contract wording, the attorneys would often win," albeit their victory was not always in the best interest of the consumer who would have to read the end product. This well-lawyered bit of phrasing from the Massachusetts automobile insurance policy (4th ed.) still obtains despite its ludicrous meaning: "Under (Part 1) we will pay damages to people killed ... by your auto..."

I don't see any noteworthy change in the prose I read in business communication today compared with what I was reading 10 or 20 years ago. Some of it is very good; a few periodicals are outstanding. One of these was the Royal Bank of Canada's Monthly Letter, as written by john Rutherford Heron from December 1943 to December 1975. It was arguably the best public relations piece ever published by any corporation. Heron's four-page essays, which illuminated whatever topic seized his fancy, were jewels of simplicity, candor, wisdom, and felicity. His introductory Letter began, "The political composition of India is like the mysterious carved boxes brought from the east to amuse the west..." (And wouldn't you know some senior three-piece suit of that era had to whuff, "What do carved Indian boxes have to do with banking?")

Heron went on to write 369 additional essays, many of which have been gathered into paperbacks. The Letter continues under different management as a popular medium of exchange between the Montreal institution and the hundreds of thousands of friends JRH earned for it around the globe.

One reason the writing produced by many students and by some working communicators is jejune seems to be a lack of propellant. Only rarely nowadays will a reader come upon a happy metaphor or simile; the vocabularies in corporate publications all too frequently are clogged with redundancies and euphemisms. A Wall Street Journal story published in 1980 told how PR writers in the nuclear power industry won the 1979 double-speak award of the National Council of Teachers of English for a "collective retreat into euphemism during the near-disaster at Three Mile Island. In their lexicon, an explosion became an 'energetic disassembly' and fire was transformed into 'rapid oxidation.' Plutonium didn't contaminate things; it became a friendly little substance that 'took up residence."'

Please the Boss's Boss

Many students bounce into journalism 101 from an environment rich in the images of television, but impoverished in terms of the mechanics of English composition and lacking a mental library filled with the style and devices of Dickens and Thoreau as well as Jim Croce and Hunter Thompson. The rookie business-editor quickly learns that "It has been decided..." will please the boss's boss more than "Vice President Polly Higgins cast the pivotal vote..." He and she will also discover that most executives prefer to eschew the written record, which has a way of surfacing later on in the portfolio of some adversary. If something of importance must be written down, the exec will almost always favor what is comfortably ambiguous and equivocal.

A practitioner I've known for more than 20 years says that to him, vapid prose bespeaks a writer who is either too lazy to read or was never made to. He recalled for me a pair of sentences Jacques Barzun wrote in his fine text called "Simple and Direct, A Rhetoric for Writers:" "Reading abundantly, in good books, is indispensable. It is only in good writing that you will find how words are best used, what shades of meaning they can be made to carry, and by what devices (or lack of them) the reader is kept going smoothly or bogged down in confusion."

My friend added that "People don't seem to read for fun as much as they used to. Maybe it's the cost of the new hardcovers and the time it takes to read, what with so many people having to work two jobs these days.

House Organ's 150th Birthday

But for us writers, reading is fuel. Without it, your tank empties quickly, and that's bad, because you have to know so much to write so little.

Nineteen ninety is a landmark year for American members of IABC. As near as I can determine, Vol. I, No. 1, of USA House Organ No. 1 was published by female employees of the Lowell Cotton Mills, Lowell, Mass., back in 1840, which puts us right in the midst of the springtime of our sesquicentennial,

Our 150th year.

A time for a renaissance of plain talk and plain words, it seems to me. A time for plain meanings, divorced from the old finalizing, prioritizing, proactivating, facilitating, implementing claptrap of the past.

What a grand time to be a young writer. What splendid opportunities you have ! Here's looking at you, kids
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:International Association of Business Communicators: 1970 - 1990: Section 2: Coming of Age; communicating in the 1960s
Author:Wood, Alden S.
Publication:Communication World
Date:May 1, 1990
Words:2231
Previous Article:The great debate.
Next Article:PR sages see growth at cost of identity.
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