Thursday, February 7, 2013

Are nefarious actors afoot affecting your writing?

I was reading a news item last week and the final paragraph, quoting Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, grabbed me by the throat and choked me a little:
“Had this protest been launched somewhere other than in the security-screening area, we would have a much different case. But Tobey’s antics diverted defendants from their passenger-screening duties for a period, a diversion that nefarious actors could have exploited to dangerous effect. Defendants responded as any passenger would hope they would, summoning local law enforcement to remove Tobey—and the distraction he was creating — from the scene.”

There were “nefarious actors” potentially afoot in the airport, and definitely in the judge’s writing.

It was a dark and stormy ruling

Sounds pretty ominous doesn’t it.

But what the heck is a "nefarious actor"?

One dictionary defines nefarious as “Infamous by way of being extremely wicked.” It offers as synonyms “abhorrent, abominable, contemptible, despicable, detestable, disgusting, filthy, foul, loathsome, mean, nasty, obnoxious, repugnant, rotten, shabby, vile, or wretched.”

Actor is generally thought of as someone appearing in movies, plays, or on TV, but can also mean “one who participates” in something.

While Brendan Fraser, Ashton Kutcher, Kristen Stewart, and the Olsen twins may be nefarious actors in the context of Hollywood, I don’t think they are what Judge Wilkinson was referring to.

The surrounding circumstances are climacteric

Context is critical here.

The event the Judge was referencing took place in an airport and involved the TSA. What he meant by nefarious actors is, simply, terrorists.

So why didn’t he just say that? It would have been much clearer.

Actually, several improvements could be made to this one paragraph. But then, we’re dealing with a judge which is the same thing as dealing with a lawyer.

Years ago, developing technical sales proposals at AT&T and then later at Rolls Royce Aerospace, every proposal included a section referred to as Ts & Cs, or Terms and Conditions.

It was in this section that we corralled all the legalese.

As it was my job to manage and edit all of the proposal sections, I got to work with several lawyers who provided us the Ts & Cs for each. These were love-hate relationships.

Can we strike that from the record?

The positives were that most of these lawyers were great people to work with and taught me a fair bit about contract law.

The negatives were that none of them were writers and developed their sections from boilerplate that was dry, convoluted, contained too many ALL CAPPED sections, incorporated weird punctuation, and was always littered with $100 long, obscure, polysyllabic words.

Getting them to agree to any changes was beyond daunting.

But, as much as to prove that I’d actually read their section as to improve it, I buttressed my courage and charged into the fray every time.

I won some battles and I lost some battles. But overall, I won the respect of the lawyers and I gained better insight into how I could actually edit their material in ways they would approve.

I learned that there were times when what appeared grammatically as a superfluous comma was absolutely essential to clarifying the precise legal meaning.

And they learned to never, ever try to slip a term like “nefarious actors” by me.

Objection! I demand a re-write!

A better rendering of the Judge’s graf might go something like this:
“Had Mr. Tobey’s protest been held elsewhere rather than an airport security-screening area, it likely would have caused no concern. Instead, he posed a potential security risk by creating a diversion. Had someone with ill-intent been present, such a diversion could have allowed them to evade detection. TSA agents responded appropriately by calling law enforcement personnel to remove Tobey from the scene.”
It’s clearer and with five fewer words to boot! Feel free to take a shot at your own rewrite and edit.

My point?

As Strunk & White adeptly states, “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”

In other words, eliminate the nefarious actors from your writing by canning the jargon and writing in plain, understandable English. Then edit for clarity and conciseness.

Oh, and keep your clothes on when going through airport security. Seriously, no one wants to see that.

RELATED: "When dictionaries are a matter of life or death…"

What affectations have you encountered in the writing of others? Please share them below!

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