Saul Alinsky and the power of words

Despite being a child of the 60s and 70s, I didn’t read Saul Alinsky until recently. I did so after several pundits (, New York Times, suggested that the Alinsky, so vilified these days by Republican presidential candidates, provides a playbook for the tea party. (Interesting observation, that.)

So I read “Rules for Radicals.” Alinsky spends the first third of the book establishing his philosophical principles. The final third is all about his legendary community organizing tactics. Unfortunately there is no middle third. We know that Alinsky’s acolytes sought racial and economic justice for those denied it, but Alinsky only hints at who organized and funded them and what their strategies were.

But this is a blog about communicating and what I took to heart was Alinsky’s demand that people not shy away from simple words with big meanings; that they not dissemble but say what they mean.

“It is not just that, in communication as in thought, we must ever strive toward simplicity… It is more than that: it is a determination not to detour around reality,” Alinsky said. “To pander to those who have no stomach for straight language, and insist upon bland, non-controversial sauces, is a waste of time.”

Alinsky’s best example was the word power.

“Striving to avoid the force, vigor and simplicity of the word ‘power,’ we soon become averse to thinking in vigorous, simple, honest terms,” he said.

Words have power and there can be no substitute for the right word. So, inspired by “Rules for Radicals,” here are five “Rules for Writers.”

  1.  Write in an active voice. Regular readers know how I’ve railed against passive writing, most recently here. The active voice forces you and others to be accountable for you actions.
  2.  Spend the time to write tight. Clients sometimes think that, because they want me to write something short, it should take less time. On the contrary: Writing shorter is harder, because it forces you to examine every word. With fewer words, each one must be specific.
  3.  Use strong verbs and don’t let vague qualifiers (“probably,” “maybe,” “often”) turn your intentions into meaningless mush.
  4.  Count syllables. Prefer the words you learned in middle school over the ones you learned in grad school.
  5.  Avoid jargon. People have used certain business-y words so much that they’ve lost their meaning. Really, what does “world class” mean? Can you prove that your product has fewer flaws than any of its competitors anywhere on the planet? Then say THAT. If you respond every tech support call within four minutes, say so; don’t just say your tech support is “robust.”

In a recent episode of the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” Queen Cersei threatened one of her minions by showing how arbitrarily she could order his death. “Power is power,” she said.

Words are power, too. Keep them as sharp as a knight’s sword.

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