Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Where can you find the worst writing?

I work at a university and I teach writing. So, where do you think I find the worst writing? Correctamundo! I find it in the e-mails sent to me by my colleagues and I find it in their abstracts that adorn the bulletin boards on campus. So far, I have yet to be discovered lurking around the many buildings on the lovely campus at CMU looking for beauties such as this:

Reachability analysis for hybrid systems is known as being a hard task and it has been motivated by safety verification. More recent work in region stability verification produced a proof rule whose implementation reduces the verification task to reachability analysis, with the bottleneck of applying this analysis to a hybrid system containing a duplicated number of continuous variables. As consequence, it can be the case that a system with only three continuous variables can not be proven as being stable with respect to a certain region. In this talk we present the dwelling time bound abstraction. Our method replaces continuous variables which do not occur explicitly in the property to be proven through information about the time spent in one location. We call this information dwelling time bound. We applied this abstraction technique for region stability verification and succeeded in proving stability for hybrid systems, for which such properties could not be shown up to now.

I know, some of you will say, "But that's Geekspeak and geeks can understand it." Or, "That's academia. Can't live with them, can't shoot them." Or, "That was intended for a special audience and they'll know exactly what it means." To that I say, "Hogswoddle!" No one should be allowed to write this way.

Anyone who understand the basics of good writing - preference for active voice, use of characters as subjects and active verbs as predicates - will write the above passage so that anyone can understand it (or at least most of it, technical terms notwithstanding).

But, academics often don't write to express; they often write to impress. And, there lies the problem. These people, especially at CMU, have amazing credentials and don't have to write to impress anyone. But, alas, they have been trained, as their trainers were trained before them for centuries, to write opaquely. That leads to writings such as the one above.

This kind of writing doesn't fly, of course, in business, where (another, "alas") some business people try to get away with it. They reject Da Vinci's comment that "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." They love Jack Welch but forget his advice to "prefer simplicity." Instead, they conjure up all the big words they can find and wrap them in cliches and jargon (business bullshit) so as to appear hugely cool and in charge. In the end, it never serves them.

When you write in business, you write for action; you must tell it like it is. Come straight to the point, quickly. Above all, don't ever tell your employees, "Reachability analysis for hybrid systems is known as being a hard task and it has been motivated by safety verification." Trust me, they won't get it.

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