Amateurs (and lawyers) beat around the bush

Most of the world has heard that CNN and Fox News inaccurately reported the US Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Health Care Act last Thursday. Later that day, here’s how Ellen Killoran, a reporter for the International Business Times, explained their error:

The egregious error does not appear to be the result of the news outlets pulling the trigger on pre-prepared reports of possible rulings. It appears rather that journalists misapprehended Roberts’ preamble to the decision as indicative of the ruling itself . . . [emphasis added]

In light of these events, I decided to get to work updating my tutorial on bottom line placement.

Readers determine a document’s main point (what my colleagues Ron Dulek and Jack Fielden defined as the “bottom line”) by what they read first.  When readers are in a hurry, they may only read the beginnning of the document. Ergo readers extract the bottom line from the first few sentences. (More about the psychology of this in a later post.)  I can think of no lesson that is more important to the transition from amateur to pro writer.  Unless you work in the legal profession.

Writing for The Jurist, Tony Locy wrote,

Reporters still need to read the decisions, and read them carefully. That didn’t happen at CNN, Fox News and the re-tweeting news outlets on Thursday because their reporters failed to appreciate that arguments before the Supreme Court are nuanced, with multiple layers, and it is common for lawyers to provide the justices with several options in the Constitution to fall back on to justify ruling one way or another. In the health care case, the solicitor general gave the justices three possibilities. If reporters look for the Court’s response to only one of a party’s arguments, as CNN, Fox News and re-tweeters did, they increase their chances of being wrong.

Ms. Locy argues that US Supreme Court Justices should expect their audience to read carefully. I don’t buy her argument. But I won’t debate it here. I do, however, guarantee you will fail in your profession (even if you become an attorney) if you adopt the same expectation. When you beat around the bush, your readers will accuse you of being confused or lazy or weak or self-centered or deceitful. And they will avoid reading whatever you send them whenever possible.

To help amateurs avoid the negative consequences of beating around the bush, the upcoming tutorial refers to an Email Job Update. The document was created by me based on a student’s response to an assignment from a 1999 book titled, Scenarios for Technical Communication, by Stone & Kynell.

  • Writer: a project manager for a construction company
  • Readers: the company’s owner
  • Bottom line message: one project is over budget and behind schedule

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