Writing clearly: A New Year’s resolution for urbanists

Confession time: I spend a lot of time trying to write with a casual, accessible tone, but when the going gets tough, I quickly fall back on cliche and jargon. I’ll describe a neighborhood as “walkable” to save explaining the complex intersection of density, variety, and land use. Writing about the importance of consulting “the community” is much easier than identifying the various groups who have a stake in any given project. Without constant vigilance, I might even stoop so low as to “utilize” a tool, rather than just use it.

“Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” — David McCullough

This laziness cannot stand. So, inspired by the wonderful and clear writing of Tony Proscio, I’m resolving this year to avoid jargon, in all of its forms. Like most of my New Year’s resolutions, I’m not shooting for perfect, just marginally better. But I do believe it’s important to try — it’s all too easy to get swept up in the urbanist Twitter and blog spheres where jargon is a convenient timesaver. I know around the office if I’m talking about resilience, capacity building, or the creative class everyone understands, but putting the same language in a Project for Public Spaces blog post without further explanation means confusing our readers.

Below is a list of a few of the words I’m hoping to weed out of my writing, developed with a few coworkers— tweet at me (@stephen_burke13) with any additions or pet peeves and I’ll update.

Words to avoid this year

Some of these are technical jargon. Others are overused, vague, euphemisms, or just plain problematic. And any one of them can work in the right context or with the right explanation or link (except utilize, ugh)— so don’t think of this as an outright prohibition, but as a list of words I’m going to think twice about before using.

  • Innovation
  • Resilience
  • Lively/vital/revitalize
  • Authentic
  • Built environment
  • Creative class
  • Complete street/road diet
  • Top-down/bottom-up
  • Linkage
  • Typology
  • Users
  • Capacity
  • Silo
  • Stakeholder
  • Utilize
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