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Hemingway Hates Your Press Releases

Think outside the box. Open the kimono. Circle back. Best practices. Innovative solutions.

460135665What do these phrases all have in common? They’re staples of business-speak (AKA workplace jargon) and they have plagued corporate prose for years. Business-speak worms its way into boilerplates, resumes and even live conversations like an invasive species attacking the collective vocabulary of the professional world. We cringe and poke fun at its stuffy emptiness, and yet it persists – even thrives.

Here’s why: business-speak acts as a crutch for writers who lack a clearer or more interesting way to deliver their messages. It sounds “official,” but doesn’t convey much meaning or action. If I tell you that my company “offers an innovative solution,” you have no idea whether I sell software or slingshots. In most writing disciplines – including American literature – such language would never fly. But should business writing be exempt from meeting the standards of good writing? On the JCPR content team, we think not.

We’ve recently started to use the Hemingway app – a useful and amusing web-based tool that evaluates a passage of writing for clarity. It scans whatever text you paste in and assigns it a score that corresponds to the lowest grade level at which readers would understand it (the app encourages writers to aim for a 10 or lower – this blog post scored a 10). It also highlights which of your sentences are “hard to read” and points out extraneous adverbs, overly complex words, and passive voice. The app “makes your writing bold and clear” by imitating Hemingway’s trademark sparse, forceful style. It’s like Kryptonite for business-speak.

Of course, some complex topics can’t be reduced to a tenth grade reading level, and sometimes it makes sense to use the passive voice. The Hemingway app is just a litmus test, not a set of hard and fast rules. That said, you can bet its namesake author wouldn’t have used “opening the kimono” unless he were writing about seducing a geisha – so think twice about putting it in your next company memo or press release.

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