Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wordsmithing - Craft or Just Crafty?

Note:  A Country Christian in Corporate America is an occasional series on my adventures in that world.

Under the corporate logo-tree, the village word-smithy stands....

It is a standard joke in nearly every office sitcom.
"Didn't you get the memo?"  It generally meant you were either out of the loop, or had just committed some corporate faux pas due to your lack of information contained in the memo.
The Memo


Ahhh, that ubiquitous form of communication, the memo, that is the bane of every office dweller and the boon of every corporate hustler who knows how to get things done.

Sometimes I was the first and sometimes the second.  You know, sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't, as the old candy bar ad used to tell us.                
Once you had developed a reputation for being able to put a salient thought or two on paper, or on the PC screen, you might get the call to become a corporate "wordsmith".

"Marsha, could you take this draft and do a little wordsmithing on it?"

Early on, I thought this kind of assignment was a compliment, a nod to my vocabulary, editorial skills, and general business savvy. Later on, I wasn't so sure.  Yes, I could craft a message, but I didn't like the tendency in some quarters to assume that I was also willing to be crafty about it.

What is certain is that knowledge is power and whoever has the knowledge has the power in almost any type of organization.  And the more specific your particular expertise happens to be, the more valuable your skill may be considered, as there are fewer folks around who know how to do it; whatever "it" may be.

I once knew an administrative assistant, those ninjas of corporate goings on, who built nearly her entire career on the fact that she could unjam a printer (any make, any model) in under a minute.  Let me tell you, when deadlines were looming, people were willing to offer serious incentives for her expertise, toot sweet.

In my case, it was often wordsmithing.  That term does not just involve a decent command of grammar and syntax; those are a given.  It also involves the ability to select just the right word, then place it in just the right context, to create the desired point of understanding between the sender and the recipient.

General corporate communications are akin to tennis - you take your shot, hopefully make your shot, stay off the foul lines and try not to gloat at the net.  Wordsmithing by comparison, might be something more like badminton, in that it requires a lighter touch, played with a more complex object (round ball vs. clever little shuttlecock) and can be more subject to the vagaries of corporate winds blowing about the playing field.  

If the routine communique' is power tennis, then wordsmithing is finesse badminton. Make no mistake, though, it is played in dead earnest, and the stakes can be very high.

Consulting firms out of New Dork and Loss Angeles for example, are paid hundred of thousands of dollars to consult on a single communication project, involving perhaps one set of public press releases, combined with a series of memos to employees, coupled with a brochure or two addressed to the shareholders.  That cost would be for a small to midsized company on a short-term project.

A communications campaign for a major company would cost millions - all to be expended mainly for the consultants' expertise in wordsmithing, that is to tinker, rethink, reposition, juxtaposition, and otherwise fiddle with words until the sender is satisfied that the desired tone and content has been achieved.  Oddly enough, the first is often more important than the latter.

How I rue the hours of my life, spent in the dubious pursuit of getting the memo to strike just the right chord. We might have accomplished more just humming a little harmony.

                                                * * * *
A sample of wordsmithing a memo, might go something like this:  a memo is about to be sent to all employees regarding a change in company policy about "X".  The powers-that-be want the memo to inform, but not go into too much detail.
                                        * * * *
We encourage you to consider - no, not "encourage" it sounds too much like counseling, or something that can be disregarded if the reader chooses....

We suggest - no, no, to weak, too optional ...

We advise - nope, too legalistic ...

We require- no, that will cause people to wonder what management is up to  ....  (and sometimes with good reason)

We recommend - better, but it still leaves a "take it or leave it" impression, not good enough ...

We want to apprise you - no, too formal

Occasionally, I would venture a question such as, "Couldn't we just say, 'Here is the deal.  We are doing X for Y reason.  If you have questions, give us a call.'  How about that approach?"

The stares, and glares, I received when I voiced such inquiries were enough to make the feint hearted run screaming from the building.  I never screamed and I did not run.  Eventually we would agree upon something like:

We would like to make you aware of - ah ha - that's it. 

Everyone likes to be "in the know."  And while not all who read the memo will understand the message, and only some will recognize the greater implications, everyone will be aware of the information.

That's the ticket, Marsha.  Let's go with that. Make them "aware."  It would take another four hours of my life to place that "awareness" in just the right context within the memo such that understanding, rather than suspicion or resistance, was created. Yeesh !     

On such days I often thought, "Surely there is a more meaningful way to make a living than writing this drivel." I blog.  Perhaps it is not progress, but it is certainly more honest and more meaningful to me.  Hope you are getting something from this post that is worth the time it took you to read this.  I truly do. .... Marsha       
                                       * * * *
"A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver."
Proverbs 25:11 NIV


  1. Well, at least you have a talent that is worthy of remuneration. I write poetry but you know how "in demand" THAT is!

  2. Clint,
    I tried poetry at fifteen, and gave up, so good for you for hanging in there.

    As for any "wordy" talent I got paid for, all I can say is they probably paid me more than I was worth, and less than the aggravation was worth! :)

  3. Enjoyed this post! Love finding just the right word to convey the right meaning.

  4. The right word at the right time is a gift. You are soooo talented. I'm glad you share your words with us, though I can certainly understand your frustration.