The February 2024 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Wordsmithing

When wordsmithing takes over from work

3 min read
Illustration: Greg Mably
Illustration: Greg Mably

There is a critical moment for nearly every group conducting a study when, although the ideas are still imperfectly formed, the final report becomes ominously due. The leader puts up a blank PowerPoint chart on the screen. The moment of truth has arrived.

Everyone stares quietly at the lonely bullet icons floating on the white background. Participants shuffle papers and sip coffee, staring with seeming unconcern at the far corners of the room, waiting for someone else to volunteer some words to go on the chart—words that will be deemed unacceptable, of course.

After the pause has become sufficiently uncomfortable, someone ventures wording to go behind the bullets to represent the conclusions of the study. There is zero chance that these words will survive. A feeling of resentment gathers among the other participants that their authority has been usurped by this pushy person.

Now a feeling of energy fills the room. The real work has begun—the wordsmithing battle is under way.

“I notice that you say in that first point that the committee recommends alternative A,” says one of the members. “Don’t you think that word is a little too strong? What happens if this doesn’t work out, and we’re blamed for the recommendation? I think we should use a more tentative word, like suggests.”

Then someone else objects. “But that word doesn’t carry the right nuance, either. We were constrained to consider only the alternatives presented to us. Maybe none of them was really any good. We should use a comparative verb, like prefers.”

And so it goes on. This is only one word, and there are many others yet to take on. In contrast to the lethargy that had characterized the room earlier, now everyone is engaged and energetic. This is good stuff!

It seems to me that wordsmithing is the natural ground state of a committee preparing a report—the state that the committee always falls back into when external stimuli are removed. At a recent study, I commented at one point in our deliberations that we had spent more time on wordsmithing than we had on considering the substance of our report. Everyone looked at me blankly for a moment, and then resumed the wordsmithing. I got into it, too. Doing wordsmithing really makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something.

It seems to me that language by its very nature is imprecise. I think of each word as inhabiting a fuzzy ball of uncertain semantic meaning. Moreover, the ideas we’re trying to express are fuzzy balls, too, particularly for a committee, each member of which has a slightly different interpretation of both the ideas and the words. The intended audience for the report will read something else entirely into the words anyway, and in my opinion, a lot of wordsmithing is wasted effort.

Whenever I think about wordsmithing, I recall with embarrassment a day some years ago when I took my management team off-site to write a mission statement for my research organization. We needed a sentence or two that would properly express an uplifting vision for what we’d like our lab to be in the near future. With great enthusiasm we started out with phrases like “leading the world in such and such.” But, of course, those words didn’t last long. Was leading the right adjective, and did we really mean to say the “world”? How precisely did we want to describe the “such and such” that we were supposed to be “leading” in?

About this time someone made a bold suggestion. The mission statement should be: “We do things for money.” That stopped discussion for a while. We all smiled, but I imagined each of us thought secretly that this was the only truthful mission statement we were going to hear.

Well, it was a long day of hard work, slugging out that mission statement, but we had our precious sentence. I went home tired and happy, feeling that it had been a successful exercise. I’d print the sentence here if I could remember it, but I can’t. On second thought, it would be too embarrassing to print anyway.

The next week we had a meeting of the whole organization, and I proudly presented our sentence. I wonder what the people were thinking. They probably thought that while they had been working hard trying to make money, these managers had spent a whole day crafting a silly sentence. I’m sure that by the end of the day, they had forgotten the sentence. By the end of the week, I’d forgotten it, too.

By coincidence, there was a management meeting of the company’s executives the next week. Our chairman asked how many of us knew the corporate mission statement. I avoided his eyes, because I hadn’t a clue. Neither, apparently, did anyone else. The angry chairman pointed out that the mission statement was prominently displayed in the lobby of our building, and we all passed by it every day.

So many words. So little meaning.

About the Author

Robert W. Lucky (F), now retired, was vice president for applied research at Telcordia Technology in Red Bank, N.J. (rlucky@telcordia.com).

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions