Since the beginning of the year I’ve been involved in the drafting of three large, high-profile public documents, one an urban regeneration strategy, one an export strategy for a national industry body, and one a long-term plan for a cultural organisation.
In each case my task has been to take the basic document, the nuts and bolts of the plan, and make it accessible to the general reader while at the same time giving it, as the client so often requests, ‘a more upbeat, aspirational feel’. One could say I have to move it along from blueprint to maquette.
The trick, I’ve discovered over the years, is to reconnect with the energy that would have been present when the ideas for the plan were first discussed, usually many months ago, but has since been squeezed out by successive drafting committees.
The energy in question is a bit like phlogiston – the flame believed by medieval alchemists to reside in all combustible materials, just waiting to be released at the moment of combustion. In the case of these documents it’s usually still resident but invisible, driven deep into the heart of the text by the dense, wooden language of modern organisational strategy.
Take phrases such as ‘clustered sustainable operating environments’ or ‘socially engaged practice’. In both cases the meaning is so veiled by abstraction that the phrases lie on the page like rotten logs. To release the energy involves a good bit of friction, rubbing away at them, sometimes quite roughly, until at last they yield their concrete meaning and one begins to see real people doing real things. Only then does it all start to come alive.
Of course no one ever sets out to write a dull or turgid plan for their organisation or industry. But any number of deadening factors come into play when documents like this are being drafted. Compromise, expediency, fear of exposure, liability or ridicule, all the elements of collective caution, are high on the list as, ironically, is the need for transparency, that much-vaunted though in this case self-defeating modern value; for how can one be truly transparent when the resulting language is so opaque?
But the biggest inhibitor of all, I believe, is the imaginary reader, very often as embodied by the government minister or other functionary to whom the plan is formally addressed. This person is unlike the rest of us. This person must be spoken to with unusual solemnity, precision and deference. This person inhabits only the most rarified conceptual plane. This person does not go home in the evening to argue with his or her other half about whose turn it is to put the bloody bins out.
In short, this person needs to get a life – as does the language in which he or she tends to be addressed. And of course the real version of this person finds as little pleasure in reading stilted strategy-speak as does any other normal human being. The real version of this person is dying, like the rest of us, to be served up a vision that has energy and enthusiasm, that summons images and commands our imaginations, that uses language pithily, even playfully, that stirs the heart and grabs the mind.
As speakers and writers of English we are linguistically super-rich. The power and energy available to us through our language is enormous. Although I take a certain perverse pleasure in doing this kind of job, it also depresses me to have to be the one to banish the imaginary reader, to be the phlogiston-finder for organisations that often have so much fire within, such good stories to tell.