Could Dickens help your business writing?


At the end of our Clarity training courses we give out a list of recommended reading. The idea is that people’s writing is influenced by what they read and that a dose of good fiction may counteract the corporate drivel that they are inundated with at work.

I’m thinking of adding Dickens’ novels to our list. But how, you may be wondering, could I possibly recommend a Victorian writer so often accused of long-windedness and sentimentality? The quality in Dickens that could be helpful is his vivid description of people and places.

The problem with so much business writing is its imprecision, its vagueness. It deals in processes and policies, and uses abstract nouns with other words piled in front of them as descriptors. For example, “the talent and development agenda” and “pragmatic effective learning and development solutions”.

Dickens wrote stories about individuals and places that we can visualise. We can hear them speak. We can almost smell them. That’s the way to communicate ideas – by creating pictures in the reader’s mind, by writing as far as possible about real people doing things. I think reading a bit of Dickens could help.

Time magazine is running a series of blog posts on why read Dickens in advance of the bicentenary of his birth on 7th February 2012.

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2 Responses to Could Dickens help your business writing?

  1. Will January 27, 2012 at 11:17 am #

    I think Dickens has an amazing ability to write extremely vivid portraits with words. Even the names of characters like Mr Guppy, Mr Gradgrind and Wackford Squeers tell you their dispositions.

    Something that is often forgotten, I think, is the social commentary present in Dickens’ novels. The characters are deliberately fantastic, but the descriptions of poverty are no exaggeration. Many business people are obsessed with the abstract and so use abstract language to describe abstract situations. This becomes a problem when they continue to use abstract language to describe real situations and the reader’s understanding suffers. If Dickens had talked about the suffering of the poor in entirely abstract terms, I doubt that some subsequent welfare reforms would have been put in place.

  2. Susannah January 27, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    Good point, Will. Being specific is more likely to get results.

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