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Are top academic and aid institutions getting away with bad writing?

June 6, 2017
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Guest post from the ODI’s Caroline CassidyCaroline Cassidy

I almost choked on my porridge last week when I read about the World Bank’s chief economist Paul Romer being sidelined for wanting his team to communicate more clearly. I re-read the article to check I wasn’t missing something, but there it was: Romer had pushed his staff to write more clearly ‘asking for shorter emails and insisting that presentations get straight to point’. He also would not clear a final report if the frequency of ‘and’ exceeded 2.6%.

I’ve spent years working with academics, policy-makers and colleagues, trying to get them to think differently about communicating evidence.  The climate has improved significantly in that time: donors are tougher on their recipients; impact is on the tip of everyone’s tongues; and communications is widely recognised as being more than just dissemination.

Yet, it was only a few years ago that a study found that more than 30% of the World Bank’s pdf reports hadn’t been downloaded in five years. In 2015, a further study by Stanford University’s Literary Lab found that World Bank publications are in ‘another language’. (I should caveat that I read a beautifully written World Bank report the other week so it’s not always the case).

Why isn’t an influential and world famous institution like the World Bank producing well-communicated research? Why isn’t it leading as an example to others? Isn’t a key role of the World Bank to find sustainable solutions that reduce poverty and build shared prosperity in developing countries? Surely strong communications is a critical piece of that puzzle.

Plain EnglishMaybe World Bank staff feel protected from this broader drive to improve communications – after all, they have the reputation and status to get away with it. Writing imprecisely can feel like a safety net. In January, Romer published his internal piece on why good writing is so critical. In it he states that ‘the problem with vague writing is that it lets an author convey a false impression yet retain plausible deniability when someone tries to verify a claim’. Clear writing is a way to build trust with your audience; it’s the bedrock to getting people to listen to you. As Romer puts it ‘‘Writing is the bottleneck that holds back the rate of diffusion of ideas’.

Last month, thousands of scientists took to the streets globally to fight back against the rise of anti-evidence. These sort of news stories about academics rejecting communications just aren’t helping. With many governments becoming increasingly reluctant to finance development of poorer nations, surely it is more important than ever that researchers do as much as they can to bridge the gap between research, policy and the public. This includes making research less elitist and more accessible to policy-makers. I am not saying that researchers have to directly influence policy, but they do have to communicate their work clearly so that it can be useful to others.

There is simply no excuse anymore to bury our heads in the evidence sand or hope ‘post-truth’ politics will all blow away. And organisations like the World Bank should be leading the way. If it starts with reducing the number of times you use ‘and’ in a report, then so be it.

(The use of ‘and’ in this blog is 2.3% of total words – phew!)

George Orwell’s 6 rules for writing (from Politics and the English Language) Paul Romer’s key messages on writing
Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.Never use a long word where a short one will do.If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

The quality of written prose should be higher in documents that will have many readers.Look at the first 7 or 8 words in a sentence. If you do not see a character as a subject and a verb as a specific action, you have a candidate for revision.Keep the use of ‘and’ to a minimum (below 2.6% of total words).

If an author devotes an extra hour to shortening and improving a text, this might save an additional minute for each reader. If there are even 100 readers. An extra hour of editing that saves 100 minutes of reading reduces the total time required for communication.

 

Caroline Cassidy is Strategic Communications Manager in ODI’s Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) team

Update: check out my LSE colleague Rajesh Venugopal’s excellent defence of difficult writing (on difficult issues) in comments

 

8 comments

  1. Just to caution that well written reports still do not make good communication, though of course good writing is important. Dictionary definitions of ‘communication’ suggest that communication is about exchange of information, about the connection between people. So it is about knowing your audience, listening as well as telling – which of course the World Bank does not do very well either! I think in addition to an edict from the top there should also incentives for staff to actually ensure that their knowledge reaches where it is needed; good communication should be part of staff assessments or even a marker of Bank organisational culture. This didn’t seem to be the case at the time I worked with WB on these issues (notably with the transport and infrastructure people who are dinosaurs in any context) and I hope this has changed/will change.

  2. Looking at the World Bank in action in their countries, it seems to me the writer AND Romer miss the point.

    Imprecise, vague writing is not a bug it is a feature.

    While the scientific analysis is often quite complete with nuances (vague), it lets the desk officers in the Bank to cherry pick the recommendations to serve the lending & spending objectives, in collaboration with the local powers, ignoring governance aspects. Referring only to the Executive Summary of the “scientific report”.

    So what you get is a decent full report with “and”recommendations, and a handy one page summary for in country use with a strong focus on the bankable recommendations.

  3. Many people write poorly expressed papers for several reasons other than to transmit the information in the paper. Some seek recognition for being prolific writers, others merely wish to be on the record as a contributor and some wish to snidely show by fair means or foul, the foolish nature of someone else’s writing. Otherwise I find that in economics there is a profusion of undefined words and subjects which is all part of the politically motivated writer to confuse, and I am not referring to political parties. How many times has the way that capitalist been deliberately mixed with land owner for these reasons. It irks me to see everybody making the same errors.

  4. Great post.

    Some of the best factual writing I have seen was in the civil service when sending something to Ministers.
    Ministers really do have too much to read, and so insist on receiving concise documents (they’re not always successful).

    They also have the power to insist.

  5. I don’t mind the word “and”. My pet hate are complex sentences with too many commas. When these are combined into long meandering paragraphs I quickly lose the will to continue reading.

  6. Thanks for your blog post. Two questions:

    1) What evidence is there to assume that good writing produces better policies?
    2) What is the role of policy-makers in bridging the gap between research, policy and the public?

    1. Hi Steven
      Thanks for your comment.
      1) To your first question – one example springs to mind. Back in 2012, 3ie looked at the impact of policy briefs. The RCT had its issues (and criticisms), but it did show how different styles of writing and presentation influence how useful policy briefs can be. However, I think it’s important to stress that it’s not just about the quality of the writing (and the research). The process of brokering that evidence is critical and it is by no means a linear process (you might want to take a look at the recent the Social Realities of Knowledge for Development for more on this).

      2) This is an important question, but it’s actually received a lot less attention than the role of other actors over the years. There’s a lot more to be done to understand what shapes policy-makers’ demand for evidence and therefore what their roles are in this process. My colleague Louise Shaxson bangs on about the fact that policy-makers aren’t very good at articulating their demand for evidence.
      My team were recently part of a DFID funded consortium (VakaYiko) that looked at the role of policy makers in a number of different countries (Ghana, Zimbabwe and South Africa). Also worth having a look at the work of INASP (with parliamentarians) and the Africa Centre for Evidence.

  7. As an academic who spends a lot of time reading scholarly research, I’ll be the first to admit that Caroline is completely right. A lot of academics make a virtue of writing involuted and impenetrable prose. A lot of high-quality, publicly-funded research ends up in gated journals that are hard to access. Important research findings routinely fail to get the audience and impact they deserve because they aren’t communicated effectively, and speak only to a small group of experts.

    Academics need to think hard about how to make their research reach a wider audience – but in doing so, let’s also keep a few things in perspective.

    First, a lot of academic output just doesn’t lend itself to being communicated as such. It is necessarily technical and speaks only to others working at that level. Development is a complicated field and a lot of academic research just isn’t intended to be read by everyone or isn’t easily translatable into policy or programming. The point is, that if you don’t understand it, it doesn’t mean it is poorly written. It just means you don’t understand it.

    Second, good academic research doesn’t often produce the kind of bite-size certitudes that can be easily communicated. Our job is often to do the opposite – to dissect and probe policy certitudes and to bring them into doubt. Evidence is often tentative and ambiguous, and inferences need to be carefully explained and qualified, mindful of complexity and shortcomings. That takes a lot of words. It doesn’t mean we’re trying to obfuscate and be imprecise. It usually means we are trying to be more precise and go beyond the glib jargon and misleading sound-bites that a lot of policy-talk dwells in.

    Thirdly, it is important not to confuse well communicated research with good research. There is a lot of hype out there and just because it’s written in plain English and backed by some regression tables, doesn’t mean you should accept it unquestioningly. This doesn’t mean there is a trade-off between the two, or that we shouldn’t all try to write and communicate more effectively. But it does mean that those trying to consume academic research need to be conscious of this problem, and not get taken in by the hype.

    I agree that we definitely need shorter emails. Bad Powerpoint presentations should be a punishable offence. Some of our colleagues in the dismal science are good with numbers but struggle with words. But beyond that, there are good reasons why some academics don’t seem to communicate well.

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