Companies & Industries

That Written-By-Committee Flavor

Hyper-concern about liability often results in bland business documents effective only in that they're laughable

Posted on Harvard Business Review: December 21, 2009 3:27 PM

One of the challenges of corporate writing is the endless rounds of editing. No document of import can be published without a wide range of "stakeholders" taking those cudgels in their mitts and running them through the text.

Every one of their comments is well intentioned, and invariably come from concerns where they have personally seen (or imagined) there to be potential for misunderstandings or lawsuits. But reading the end result is like riding a roller coaster with all the dangerous curves and loop-de-loops removed—we wouldn't want to frighten anyone, after all—leaving one stuck in an inert, wheel-less box where every now and then someone cautiously whispers, "Wheeeee?"

Let's take an example of a corporate edit on some familiar text. First, we have your draft:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Now we have the comments from the reviewers:

We the People [Does this include all citizens? What about people who are traveling?] of the United States [Later on you say "United States of America." Is this a different "United States" here?] , in Order to form a more perfect Union [You can't be more perfect. Do you mean "better"? If so, you need to define better or it could open us up to litigation if a citizen is expecting more sunny days, for example, and we are in no position to provide that. Also, what's this term "union". Do you mean government? Terms are important, please stick to a set of words we can be sure everyone will understand.], establish Justice [You can't really establish "justice". That's making a big claim. Also, why is "Justice" capitalized? Is it a defined term?], insure domestic Tranquility [These are very big words here. Let's make it more accessible.], provide for the common defence [Spell check, and what about situations where we can't "provide" defense? We should caveat this.], promote the general Welfare, [Not sure what you mean here. Are we promising too much? Is this strictly necessary?] and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, [People might expect actual "blessings" from this. We need to tread more carefully. And if we are going to make them available to both citizens and their children, we should allow for costs of maintaining and distributing these "blessings".] do ordain and establish [Can you explain how "ordain" is different than "establish"? This seems unnecessarily wordy.] this Constitution for the United States of America.

Next we have the nearly-final track-changes version that incorporates everyone's comments:

We the People currently located in and either a citizen of through birth or an approved naturalization ceremony of the United States of America (hereafter "U.S."), in order to form a more perfect better Union government, defined as a government superior to the prior in terms of quality of government actions related to those projects and programs developed and implemented by the government and measured, as necessary, on a basis as determined by the government; establish promote, as required, the practice of legal justice; insure facilitate, where appropriate, domestic matters that are documented (see Appendix) as pertaining to the actions of the government, provide, where possible, for the common defencse; promote the general welfare and secure select, where available, the blessings of liberty, which are not to be construed as actual blessings, but a symbolic sense of liberty that can be, when requested, documented by the government and made available to ourselves and our posterity, at a cost to be determined by the government and at a time and place of the government's choosing; do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America U.S.

Usually, this is where I suggest ways of rectifying this situation. But I'm at a loss. Only when one person takes control of the writing does it come out any other way. But taking individual control is antithetical to the collaborative nature of modern corporate culture. Wordy, legalistic, jargonized prose is endemic to capitalism.

What do you think? Have you had an editorial experience like this? Do you have a solution to it?

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