THE PLAIN TEXT GAZETTE – Issue 13, July 2006
* White papers! Huh! What are they good for?
* Another gratuitous cycling reference
* Language miscellany
It’s been a while since the last Plain Text Gazette — over a year, in fact. Does this make us the most relaxed email newsletter on the web? We hope so. Amongst the babble of blogs, podcasts, RSS headlines and spam, we’d like to think that this newsletter’s Zen infrequency remains part of its charm. It’s not just about easing the pressure on your groaning inboxes, though: we’ve been busy too, doing Plain Text stuff and writing books. Paul Waddington’s most recent, ’21st-Century Smallholder: How to get back to the land without leaving home’ came out in May this year. If you want to know stuff like whether you’ll be arrested for keeping pigs in your back garden, take a look.
In this issue we discuss less serious topics. We take a look at corporate white papers, mainly in response to our own profound unwillingness to read any of them. There’s a gratuitous cycling reference (which is about writing, not bicycles, for those indifferent to this pursuit) and then we include a miscellany of writing-related stuff that has amused or horrified us on the web of late.
Enjoy this issue.
White papers! Huh! What are they good for?
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Absolutely nothing, say it again… It’s always nice to remember Edwin Starr, whose hit War! is being abused here (and who once flagged down my car in west London and gave me his phone number, but that’s another story). Although Edwin’s life was cut short, at least he is unlikely to have had to spend any of reading a corporate white paper. (Or whitepaper, depending on your preference). Now it might be harsh to suggest that these documents are a complete waste of time. Some of you may even have just finished lovingly buffing a meisterwerk none of whose many thousand words are superfluous and which enlightens, entertains and enriches the reader and–of course, because this is the purpose of all things in business–ultimately contributes to shareholder value.
But if you have, I suspect you’re in the minority. Few corporate white papers do any of the above. I have three problems with them.
1) Dishonesty. Many white papers are not white papers. If it’s just going to tell you that ShinyNeoTek’s * Command Resource Architecture Planning Solution TM is cool, and that you should buy it (sorry, ‘partner with the vendor’) straight away, then it’s a brochure. But almost certainly without the nice pictures and snappier copy that would otherwise have made it almost readable.
2) Cruelly subverted expectations. A ‘white paper’ was originally a statement to parliament of government policy; and commercial documents so named thus carry a certain residual gravitas. Until you read them. What you hoped might have been a trenchant exposition of, say, European energy policy in relation to low-carbon technologies turns out to be no more revealing than something you could have thrown together yourself with a few spare hours, a broadband connection and a confident writing style.
3) Tedium. Just because it’s 3,000 words long doesn’t mean it has to be boring. In fact it needs to be really, really interesting in order to keep the reader riveted for the 10+ minutes it’ll take them to wade through it. All the usual business writing rules apply to white papers too.
None of this is to suggest that businesses should never write white papers. They just need to make sure the documents are honest, informative and interesting.
Here are some of the questions that Plain Text bears in mind when the task of writing a white paper looms:
* Does the subject need a white paper? Is it sufficiently complex, multi-faceted and interesting to merit exposition in a lengthy document?
* Will the paper say something new? Or are you simply rehashing common industry knowledge?
* Will it be useful? Will it make your reader go ‘Aha!’? Or ‘Uh?’, followed by ‘Zzzzzzz’
* Will it be interesting? Is it going to tell a story?
* What will it do for your company? Will it help you to sell stuff? Boost your reputation? Get you in the press?
Positive answers to these can make a white paper worth reading. But I still think they need a different name. I just can’t think of one in London’s current 32c heat. Just ‘paper’? Too academic. Or maybe ‘think piece’? Too ghastly. Any ideas gratefully received.
* It’s a dangerous business thinking up company names. Whilst writing this newsletter I thought ‘Ubiquitech’ would be a good made-up name. Imagine my surprise in finding not only that it existed, but that it sells–wait for it–‘Tomorrow’s Solutions Today’.
Another gratuitous cycling reference
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I make no apology for returning to a personal favourite subject, after eulogising retro cycling brands at various points in Gazette 11. It’s just that these people seem particularly skilled in the art of using language to make their customers slaver. Take Rapha, purveyor of ludicrously expensive retro cycling clothing. They supplement a tasteful website with stories that polish the mystical aura of heroic suffering that surrounds road cycling. All of which cleverly leads hapless victims like me to think cool thoughts about their brand. An illustration, if one were needed, that good writing sells, particularly when you know what makes your audience tick.
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In the aeon since the last Plain Text Gazette, we’ve been gathering the odd bit of stuff loosely relating to business writing that has popped up on the web. You may have seen some or all of these, so there’s some handy summaries to save you the trouble of visiting if they’re not of interest.
PowerPoint suicide note — it was surely only a matter of time before someone did this delightful if rather macabre satire, so hats off to The Onion. We’re a bit disappointed that Ron neglected to include an agenda slide, essential to any successful presentation in our view. Guess he wasn’t thinking straight.
Constructed languages — if you’re a language nerd with a lot of time to waste, or just someone who always likes to be amazed at the amount of time others have to waste, this directory of constructed languages reveals fearsome depths of nerdery. That there are primers on two different variants of Elvish shouldn’t surprise, but it somehow does.
London Underground anagram map — which despite having been removed from parts of the web by humourless lawyers, still seems to be here. Worth the detour, as they say in the Michelin guide.
Council mis-spelling — proof, if any were needed, of the British national decline in literacy which is making professional writers so essential to modern life.
And finally, it is disappointing to learn that the football (soccer) club representing two Welsh towns has changed its name to ‘The New Saints’ after having spent eight years as the first team to be named after its sponsor. The (former) sponsor’s name? Plain Text couldn’t have made it up: Total Network Solutions:
That’s it for this issue. As always, your comments, suggestions and rants are welcome.