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just read a great post by David Silverman re how bad biz writing is partly a result of what we learn in school.

Talking about the excessive use of big words and the tendency for length to trump clarity he says:

In every essay, “-ion” and “-ing” words outpace simple forms by a heavy margin, and there’s a plethora of prepositional phrases, an abundance of adverbs, and redundancies repeated relentlessly.

I blame this on an educational system that rewards length over clarity. When you get tick marks for bulls’ eyes — and no demerits for the number of darts used — the student learns to overwrite in hopes that at least some of their sentences hit the mark.

After we graduate, the long-winded version of any document is encouraged in the same way. Better to make every possible point, use three words where one will do, and even be redundant, than leave out something that might win the boss over.

He is onto something here. Having spent a considerble amount of time in educational institutions, I can attest to the prevalence of length as a source of structure. Word count and number of pages are often the first issues addressed when tasks are assigned to students. Teachers either say “In 700 words tell me about subject X” or students say “How long do you want the answer on subject X to be Ms/Mr Teacher?” Educators need to be made more aware of the problems this breeds.

It may be as simple as attaching WIDE ranges to assignments (“the essay can be between 4-12 pages”) re length and changing the logic underpinning grading. Too often “effort” is closely correlated with amount of research and length. This was most certainly the case in my MBA. It was fascinating to see some presentations that received A+ were in fact 45 minute “death by power point” sleepers where no one except the presenters learned a thing. The ethic of “less is more” needs to be reflected in grading.

What other tactical initiatives can teachers employ? I saw a tweet some time ago from Tom Peters re using Twitter in schools as way to promote brevity and lucidity. My mom, who has had a long and successful career in education, thought this was an interesting idea. It may be as simple as hosting a kind of “in class tweet-up.” Students could be shown videos or made to read texts and answer questions  in 140 characters. (For more on Twitter in the classroom see this piece)

As I have said before, brevity is the new black. The digital youth of today – though texting, tweeting etc – are in the unfortunate situation of being schooled to the contrary.

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