Readers will have noticed my growing impatience with the academic output about public services in the past 30-40 years. About the only writer I exempted was Chris Pollitt whose The Essential Public Manager (2003) is, by far and away, the best book to help the intelligent citizen make sense of this field. It’s friendly; brings in individuals to play roles illustrating contemporary debates; clearly summarises different schools of thought on the key issues; and leaves the reader with guidance for further reading….
Most authors in this field, however, are writing for other academics (to impress them), for students (to give them copy for passing exams); or for potential customers in senior government positions (to persuade them to offer contracts) – they are never writing for citizens. As a result, they develop some very bad habits in writing – which is why this new book should be in their family’s Xmas stocking this year. It offers priceless advice, including -
1." Bait the hook“ When you go fishing, you bait the hook with what the fish likes, not with what you like.” An obvious principle, easily lost sight of. Putting yourself in the audience’s shoes governs everything from the shape of your argument to the choice of vocabulary. Ask what they do and don’t know about the subject, and what they need to; not what you know about it.
Ask what they are likely to find funny, rather than what you do. What are the shared references that will bring them on board? Where do you need to pitch your language? How much attention are they likely to be paying?
This is what Aristotle, talking about rhetoric, called ethos, or the question of how your audience sees you. And the best way for them to see you is either as one of them, or someone on their side. As the speech theorist Kenneth Burke wrote – another line I never tire of quoting – “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, identifying your ways with his.”
2. Be clear A lot of style guides, with good reason, tell their readers to write Plain English. There’s even a Plain English Campaign that does its nut, year-round and vocationally, about examples of baffling officialese, pompous lawyer-speak and soul-shrivelling business jargon.Plain English (the simplest word that does the job; straightforward sentences; nice active verbs etc) is far from the only style you should have at your command. But if you depart from it, you should have a reason, be it aesthetic or professional.
The plainer the language, the easier the reader finds it; and the easier the reader finds it, the more likely they’ll take in what you’re saying and continue reading. Surveys of the average reading age of British adults routinely put it between nine and 13. Trim your style accordingly. Steven Pinker talks about “classic style” (he borrows the notion from the literary critics Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner). This, as he sees it, is a variation on Plain English that compliments the reader’s intelligence and talks to him or her as an equal.
He gives a cute example. “The early bird gets the worm” is plain style, he says. “The second mouse gets the cheese” is classic. I half-buy the distinction; though much of what Pinker credits to the classic style is exactly what’s asked of any good instance of the plain. And the examples he offers convey quite different thoughts, and (a bit unfairly) attribute a cliche to the plain style and a good joke to the classic.
3. Prefer right-branching sentences Standard-issue sentences, in English, have subject-verb-object order: dog (subject) bites (verb) man (object). There are any number of elaborations on this, but the spine of your sentence, no matter how many limbs it grows, consists of those three things.
If you have a huge series of modifying clauses before you reach the subject of the sentence, the reader’s brain is working harder; likewise, if you have a vast parenthesis between subject and verb or even verb and object. The reader’s brain has registered the subject (dog) and it is waiting for a verb so it can make sense of the sentence. Meanwhile, you’re distracting it by cramming ever more material into its working memory. “My dog, which I got last week because I’ve always wanted a dog and I heard from Fred – you know, Fred who works in the chip shop and had that injury last year three days after coming home from his holidays – that he was getting rid of his because his hours had changed and he couldn’t walk it as much as it wanted (very thoughtful, is Fred), bit me ...”
4. Read it aloud Reading something aloud is a good way of stress-testing it: you’ll notice very abruptly if your sentences are tangled up: that overfilling-the-working-memory thing can be heard in your voice. The American speechwriter Peggy Noonan advises that once you have a draft, “Stand up and speak it aloud. Where you falter, alter.”
I was about to write to Chris Pollitt to encourage him to produce a new edition of his book (which is 14 years old) but, magically, came across The Twenty First Century Public Manager scheduled for publication at the end of the week!
Which took me in turn to The Twenty First Century Public Servant - a short report which came out in 2014……and reminded me of a book which has been lying on my shelves for all too long – Public Value – theory and practice ed John Benington and Mark Moore (2011) which is put in context by a very useful article Appraising public value