What Business Writers Can Learn From the Literary Greats

It might seem odd to turn to the literary masters for lessons on business writing. But I think there are some we can learn. And the first has to do with clarity. Here are a few excerpts from some of the greatest fiction writers of the 20th century.

Ernest Hemingway: “The house was built on the highest part of the narrow tongue of land between the harbor and the open sea. It had lasted through three hurricanes and it was built solid as a ship.” (Islands in the Stream)

Ian McKewan: “Leon crossed the hall toward her, his hand outstretched for the phone. There was a streak of dirt from his trouser cuffs to the knees. Mud, and in such dry weather.” (Atonement)

John Steinbeck: “She looked up pleasantly from the frying pan. And then her hand sank slowly to her side and the fork clattered to the wooden floor. Her eyes opened wide, and the pupils dilated.” (The Grapes of Wrath)

Could you understand what they were saying? I am guessing it wasn’t difficult. Now compare, if you will, these passages from professional firms’ publications.

IT Services Firm: “The more delayed or deferred an integration becomes, organizations tend to slowly accept the inefficiency and gradually but steadily reach a point of no return in terms of IT investments or product roadmap decisions.”

Large Accounting Firm: “The proposal places the focus firmly on the definition of a business, because this is the key in determining whether the acquisition is accounted for as a business combination or as the acquisition of a collection of assets. As a result, this places pressure on the judgment applied in making this determination.”

How about those? I don’t want to color your thinking, but I think they are barely intelligible.

The temptation here is to say “Well, these are much more complex issues than the fictional ones.” No, they aren’t. They have just been made complex with the writing. The first for instance says, “The longer a company delays a post-merger integration, the less likely it is to do it well.”

You would think that if you set out to communicate with current and prospective customers, you’d want to do it clearly. If they can’t understand what you are saying, you fail.

Good writers do two things well: they are clear about what they want to say, and they say it clearly. That is the essence of effective communication.

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