Posted on 24 Jan 2010 22:37
Bad fitness articles are a nickel a dozen. True, this is only my second post on how to spot bad articles but I have enough ideas to keep this going for a long time. To be clear, I am not talking about bad writing, necessarily, but bad practices, designed to cover up a lack of depth or understanding.
Although there is much overlap between these things and bad writing in general, I am aiming to help you uncover bad articles, not bad writing. My writing may not always be up to even my standards for instance but while I have written articles that I would consider poorly written not very often have I written something which I consider to be bad content.
So, we are talking about, really, uncovering fitness experts who don't know what they are talking about and use bad practices to cover a lack of depth and knowledge. While an ineffective article can be rewritten to become an effective one, a bad article is a bad article no matter how you juggle it.
This does not mean that if someone writes a bad article we should condemn them. Nobody is perfect and everybody can have a bad day. I may be having a bad day as I write this. It has happened before!
Post one covered the excessive use of quotations. This post will cover three related problems in fitness articles: unusual or uncommon words, jargon, and journalese.
Author uses many uncommon and unusual words where common ones would suffice.
How many times have you read an article that looks as if the author had a thesaurus open in front of him while writing it? Well, he probably did. Confusing jargon and ambiguous and unusual words are not just a signal of a bad article they are often a means of obscuring bad science as well.
A common trick is to substitute a fancy sounding word for a common idea. Many times the definitions of the words themselves are vague or very diffuse because they are used in such widespread ways in many different situations. I consider the word fitness itself to be one of these words. But there are much worse examples such as holistic, organic, and natural.
Other times, words with very specific meanings are co-opted simply because they sound like good jargon (more on jargon in particular below).
The basic idea is to confuse, befuddle and otherwise deflect the readers mind from the lack of coherency. This is the path to success of some of the best known fitness personalities on the internet. You'll notice that I said internet and not "in the world". The internet is the perfect stage for such deliberately confusing language. However, it won't get you far in the field. You can confuse the masses into thinking you're a heck of smart guy and they just aren't educated enough to get you. But you can't fool your paying clients! For long.
Unfortunately these people can make more money selling products on the internet than they ever would have in the field alone.
Deliberately attempting to mislead the reader by using jargon or ambiguous words is called obfuscation. This type of language lacks clarity even when it is innocent. Since obfuscation itself may be a good example of using an unusual word when a common word would do let me use plain English. It's called bullshitting.
Seeking unusual and obscure words is a tool of jargon but jargon is not the only instance. Some fitness writers use uncommon (and overly long) words because they think it makes them sound more sophisticated. Why would they want to sound more sophisticated? Because it is effective for many readers. Many people have been fooled into thinking that if they fail to understand the language an article is using it is a sign that they are not intelligent or knowledgeable enough to understand. If you are fooled into thinking the writer is smarter than you then you are less likely to apply critical thinking to what they say. You will just accept it. Even though it is, here we go again, complete BS.
Scratching your head while re-reading the same paragraph over and over is not a sign that you are dumb. It is a sign that the article is.
Sophisticated writing has nothing to do with unusual or flowery language. We are not talking about poetry here, after all. Sophisticated writing is writing that has been cultivated through experience over time. Picking an unusual word when a common word would do is the opposite of sophisticated.
I just read a fitness article where the writer used the term "congnescenti" to refer to fitness experts. Cognescenti? A great word for a crossword puzzle. All of this, of course, could just be a sign of inexperience. Although I am writing about it in some depth, it is only one spot among many, and no writer should be unduly punished based on one habit or instance. Still, if you find that an experienced and prolific fitness writer is consistently guilty of obfuscation, jargon, or "high-brow" prose consider him or her suspect to further scrutiny.
Jargon Singled Out
I am afraid that the kind of jargon you are thinking of is not the kind I am complaining about. Fitness as a field has its own unique terms just like any other field. I'm not sure, but I think that these unique or technical terms that come with a particular field are what most people think of as jargon.
Reps. Sets. Circuits. DOMS. That's jargon. You shouldn't assume that everybody understands it. But it's not a sin. It's necessary. Even if we use the full word repetition instead of reps it is still part of our jargon. People may know what the word repetition means by itself but still not understand what you mean when you use it in a fitness article. So it's good to realize that we need to be as clear as possible.
Regardless, we need a shorthand way of communicating with each other and with the light-speed of the webernet we are firing off forum posts and blog comments even while we're shopping at the mall. Am I supposed to say "muscle soreness which occurs one to three days after high volume or novel resistance training or other training that has a lot of time under eccentric tension?" Of course not. I'm going to say DOMS for "delayed onset muscle soreness". I'll explain it when I need to but I'm not going to type out a full explanation every single time, and I could probably think of simpler language to use.
According to Merriam-Webster, this kind of jargon is defined as the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group. The definitions of jargon we are concerned with here, however, are 1) confused unintelligible language and 2) obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words.
I will borrow from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's lecture on jargon to make up an example of jargon you might find in a strength training article.
"The nature of this exercise gives it a singularly difficult character."
Are you thinking, "what the hell?" You've seen writing like this, I'm sure. You may not have thought much about it but you also didn't learn much from it. It is an example of jargon. The author of this type of nonsense with his abstract nouns, nature and character, says nothing while sounding important. The problem is that he is using circular and fuzzy language to cover up the fact that he says nothing because he knows nothing to say. Quiller-Couch makes a case of the word "singularly" as well and it is still one of the most overused words in the language. If that sentence were true then the exercise in question would be the most difficult exercise of all. So words like singularly constitute jargon and also bad writing.
Concretely, he is saying "The exercise is difficult." Why? Well, because it is of a nature, see and it has a character, like. That is circumlocution. Which means dancing around things that you don't want to say or can't say.
Scott Sonnon is a master of jargon:
A skill is a network of neurological signals wrapped in a blanket, called myelin. The stronger the blanket, the more perfect the skill. And there are specific attitudes and behaviors which thicken the mastery blanket (and those which erode it). This mastery process involves a mental attitude tied to a physical behavior.2
That and a quarter will get you a phone call.
As you can see jargon involves poetic or highly technical sounding language but the actual words used are almost never concrete. Here we have the image of a blanket (the poetry, and concrete enough) to describe the insulation around the motor nerves and this served up along with words that are only concrete when they refer to actual examples. Words such as attitude, behavior, master, and process. My apologies to club bell fans everywhere but I had to look for a good example and this one was too juicy to pass up.
So this type of jargon can also be thought of simply as over-complicated and flowery writing. Many writers seem to think that simple writing does not get the job done. They are mistaken. In fact, they have it backwards. Pretentious and pompous language is a disservice to the reader as it deflects the reader's attention away from the message. And often such language is the deliberate result of the desire to block the readers awareness that there is a lack of message and meaning.
"Contrary to what some people seem to believe, simple writing is not the product of simple minds. A simple, unpretentious style has both grace and power. By not calling attention to itself, it allows the reader to focus on the message" -Richard Lederer and Richards Dowis4
Take the jargon apart
1. A skill is wrapped in a blanket (called myelin). Once we get done imagining our skill wrapped in blankets let's move on to
2. If that blanket wrapping our skills is stronger our skill will be (more) perfect. Okay, so we have to strengthen the blanket around our skills to make our skills more perfect. Are you with me?
3. There are specific attitudes which make the blanket around our skills thicker. And others that will erode it. Which I take is like using too much bleach in the wash, but I'm not sure. But the blanket has now become a "mastery blanket". Is that like a blue blanket, or a red one?
4. Wait a minute, it's not a blanket it's a mastery process? Did I miss something somewhere? I thought we were talking about a blanket. Ok, let's forget the blanket then. Apparently it's a process. All that mental imagery gone to naught, darn.
5. The mastery process, once blanket, is a mental attitude. I take it this is the same one that will thicken the blanket which is not a blanket but a mastery process. So this mental attitude is tied to a physical behavior. Which I guess may have something to do with these skills we are talking about.
Alright, I'm confused. Yes, there is a process of "myelin reinforcement" involved with skill aquisition, but so what? How does fancy, pretentious talk about myelin help us learn something about how we actually master a skill in the real world of sight and smell? Rhetorical question.
Nouns Instead of Verbs
So, now that you've read the heading, you'll notice that the above quote is full of nouns, or names, with adjectives, and very few active verbs. These are examples of the nomative fallacy, which is the mistake of thinking that to name something is to explain it. The main verb used in this kind of writing is, of course, the "to be" verb. So a skill IS a "network of neurological signals." What is a network of neurological signals, you ask? Why, it's a skill!
In this kind of jargon writing, sometimes, common verbs become nouns and the overuse of nouns and pronouns in verbose science writing is common. In this kind of fitness writing, you might see something like, "upon termination of training, the trainee will exhibit…" This is a fancy way of saying "if you stop training, this will happen…" This is bad and lazy writing, but at least it is clear what "termination" means and that meaning is concrete. Other verb to noun uses, which almost always use the "ion" ending, take all the precise meaning out of the verb and render it impotent and fuzzy. Even now, having read so much of this kind of writing, it is hard to keep from doing it myself!
"The training protocol involved an improvement in 1RM, but a degeneration in amplitude occurred."
That means, "the trainee improved his 1RM from doing the training program, but the range of motion reduced."
Back to the quote. To be fair what the author is attempting to say in the article, if you can decipher it, is sensible, and if you've read enough of this blog you'll see I'd agree with it. At least I think I would. You can never be sure when there is so much jargon in the writing. I don't see a real connection between the aphorism "perfect practice makes perfect" and what Sonnon tries to demonstrate toward the end of the article. This is a case of reading too much into an aphorism and then becoming pedantic about it. Sometimes aphorisms are silly and misleading, but trying to replace bad aphorism with a slightly better one through the exercise of lingo is even worse! Aphorisms are never perfect and are not meant to be. There seems to always be a situation where an opposing aphorism will be valid. That is the nature of aphorisms…oops, I used the word nature.
Plisk and Stone's proposed definition of periodization is an excellent example. According to them, periodization is:
"The use of planned unpredictability to manipulate or outmaneuver another player, which in this case is the body’s adaptive mechanism."
If you feel baffled by that then you are learning to recognize jargon. Planned unpredictability is some of the most baffling bullshit I've come across. As you can see we are using this planned unpredictability to outmaneuver another player. Outmaneuver is a suitably non-specific word. But at least we know that the other player is the body's adaptive mechanism. Huh? Note that jargon does not always consist of bad sentences. With this example we got a two for one deal. Another example from Sonnon's "Myth of Strangulation Article from World Martial Arts Magazine, shared here, where he writes about the "nature of the vascular network" and how it apparently is not a "fact" that unconsciousness can occur when blood and oxygen supply is restricted to the brain for long enough:
"….Since professionals have set this "fact" forth from all corners of conventional health/fitness/martial culture, it has been accepted as an 'absolute truth'. It is generally agreed upon by conventional culture that the goal of education is to equip students with the skills to achieve specific, desirable outcomes. An outcome's desirability and possibility, however, is context-specific: an outcome that is desirable in one instance, is inappropriate in the next, and more importantly, an outcome is only possible within specifically-designed parameters of the situation. If any of the specific variables that are required for the outcome to occur are absent, the possibility of the outcome is negated."3
I'll leave you to ponder that one. What you should recognize is that any widespread belief that is accepted as fact can be seemingly derailed by obfuscation of this type. All the talk about unconsciousness from an interrupted blood supply to the brain being "context specific" and having to do with the "parameters of the situation" sounds fancy and intellectual but it says nothing. Because everything is context specific and arguing that something is context specific is not an argument in itself, but only the introduction to one. Instead of being fooled by such vacuous pseudo-intellectual nonsense, remember that one can only counter an argument with other sound arguments…not jargon.
Unless you have already trained yourself to recognize it you may have a hard time knowing it so I'll give you one general rule to abide by. Jargon tends to be abstract, general, and vague. The more you see of these three in a written piece, the more you should suspect it, if only because jargon shows you nothing particular, concrete or definite. Of course we cannot do without generalities and abstracts. But we should not rely on them either. Be on guard against overly poetic language. Sometimes people are just apt to write that way and that's fine. The problem, though, is that poetic language can be seen as having more authority than "plain talk". "It sounds good" means the same, unconsciously, as "It is good." However, when you cannot understand what it is the writer is trying to convey, it may well mean that there is nothing TO convey!1
The Warning Words
F. Peter Woodford, in 1968, set forth (notice the jargon?) a list of "warning words" that he thought were unclear and ambiguous. They still seem to be a problem today, and you will start to notice them in fitness articles, now that I've given you the list. These, you'll notice, are verbs that take the place of common verbs but lack the punch of the direct and unambiguous words they are replacing. Some are a bit worse than others and we cannot, nor do we need to, do away with them completely. Just watch for their overuse:
- carried out
Let's look at one of these, involved:
"The training protocol involved a decline in 1RM most of the trainees."
It seems, in that sentence, that I am trying to say that the training caused all the involved (haha) trainees to get weaker. So, why would I use the word involved instead of just saying 1RM went down for most of the trainees or even more strongly, most the trainees got weaker.
Obviously I'm not being very precise, be we aren't talking about a scientific paper which would be full of confusing numbers. It could be I had an agenda to prove or disprove the training protocol in the first place. It could also be that I already believed it to be a bad program. Now, what if I found that many of the trainees who used the program did lose a bit of weight from their one rep max but it was a very small and insignificant reduction in performance…much less a loss than I expected. So, I simply chose language that reflected the fact that I couldn't stand behind what I was saying. If I were to say "the trainees got weaker" it would make people think they got MUCH weaker. Nobody would take that to mean the 1RM went down 1.5lbs or something like that, right? Instead, saying it "involved a decline in 1RM" leaves me an out. It seems more vague while holding out the possibility that I am talking about a big loss in strength. So, plain and direct language, often, holds stronger and more definite implications.
Although some jargon is really just complete nonsense, most successful jargon is a calculated attempt at cleverness and the best jargon makes the reader feel that they should understand it, if only they themselves were clever enough. Being clever, trendy, and "tuned-in" is a sub-category of jargon:
Journalese has been compared to jargon and there is a lot of overlap between the two. I think that journalese is a language all its own, that incorporates jargon sometimes. Bodybuilding, strength, and fitness has its own language that can be compared to journalese.
All my research on the subject of journalese only led to more confusion since so many of the things I read about it are not distinguishable from jargon. The best I can do is give concrete examples of what I think of as journalese in fitness writing, or just plain fitness talking. But there are at least a few defining rules that apply well to the fitness, bodybuilding and strength world.
Nouns, verbs, and adjectives are interchangeable in journalese.
- We don't temporarily stop progressing. We plateau. We don't exercise the pectorals. If we are conservative we hit them. If we are mega hardcore we blast them. Many people don't lose fat. They cut it. Interestingly you can also blast it. But that doesn't mean growing more fat like when you blast your pecs. Amazingly, we can also hit a weight-loss plateau.
- Losing enough fat so that your muscles are extremely well defined means you are shredded. If you are shredded and also very big you are jacked. You can also be ripped. To achieve any of that you cut up.2
- Instead of biceps or upper arms we have guns. Others have pythons. You don't take anabolic steroids. You are on the juice.
- In bodybuilding everything is anabolic. The bodybuilding world is on anabolic overload. It's a precise and scientific word that has been turned into journalistic fluff.3
- Varying the stimulus to the muscles is confusing the muscle. Alternatively, instead of stimulating the muscle we can shock the muscle.4 This is based on the muscle confusion principle.
- The word principle is a most important bit of journalese, especially in the strength training world. Poliquan, for instance, doesn't come up with strength training ideas, he comes up with principles. Lest you do not realize just how blatant this example is, consider the definition of the word, from Merriam Webster:
1: a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption
2: a primary source : origin
3: a : an underlying faculty or endowment <such principles of human nature as greed and curiosity> b : an ingredient (as a chemical) that exhibits or imparts a characteristic quality
I'll bet you did not know that a fundamental law of human muscle is that it is easily confused. The word is most used by bodybuilding writers to describe certain dogmatic rules of bodybuilding. The idea that certain training practices are principles is, to me, almost the worst example of journalese in this article.
Many of the examples I've mentioned could also be called slang terms. Journalese is often thought of as journalistic slang. Where do you think they came from? Bodybuilding magazines, of course. These magazines are built on recycling a handful of information into countless articles. It's not easy to come up with something new on the subject of bicep growth every issue!
So instead of new material you infuse the same rearranged material with journalese. Make it snappy and emotive. SELL it. Not to overemphasize the importance of text in a bodybuilding magazine, though. The big glossy photos of juiced up pros are the bread and butter of the industry.
- Most of the bicep routines in muscle magazines are, of course, "one of a kind". The really good ones are advanced. Advanced, in the bodybuilding and strength training industry simply means, something which is better than whatever you happen to be doing5
The phrase "one of a kind" applied to a fitness program says absolutely nothing about the program. Yet it is perfect journalese.
- Workout or weight loss plans are not only effective they are "highly effective". Some people would like to speed up their metabolism but even better is to fire up your metabolism. Of course, lots of the things we do, if we are the real deal are hardcore.
- We also have "hybrid programs" and "hybrid fitness". I guess if two types of fitness fall in love and make a baby it will be a hybrid fitness baby.
Sounding tuned in and trendy so that you sound like you know everything (when you know very little)
The idea here is that you have to look like a "fitness-insider", which is itself a bit of journalese. These writers have very little knowledge and experience and yet they seem to know everything while saying nothing:
"So they pretend to omniscience by the slap and crackle of their Journalese. It is the language of insider namedropping and letting you, the reader, into secrets. It is a cynical code that reads as though it should be wise-cracked out of the side of the mouth by Bogart or Kirk Douglas playing ace reporter. It is toughguy. For example “Get the chop” and “Go through the mincer” are Journalese metaphors from the butcher’s." - Philip Howard
Howard1 pegged half the fitness writers on the net with that statement. Many of the supposed fitness experts on the internet are in fact professional bloggers. These are freelancers who actually get paid to blog. They may have their own home blog but I shouldn't have to point out that this is indeed journalism.
Insider is perhaps the most important word in bodybuilding and fitness journalese. Howard brought up name-dropping which, although related to the concept of the insider, is a subject all its own and it may deserve its own post in this series. But it is part of journalese as well.
Learn to translate journalese name-dropping.
"I spoke with my good friend so and so at length about this and came to the conclusion that…"
Translates to: I emailed so and so and he told me some stuff which I am now telling you.
It may also translate to "I read an article by so and so".
Endorsement trading may be easy to get mixed up with name dropping so to recognize the difference:
"He's so great and I agree with everything he says even though what I say is different" is endorsement trading. Name-dropping is more specific. Or at least it pretends to be more specific. I've noticed that some people drop names without ever making it clear why they are dropping the name.
Another favorite is profession-dropping:
"I've spoken at length with many (insert profession here) and I have come to the conclusion that…"
"I stood next to (insert professional here) in the lunch line, once, a few months ago."
I know that sounds cynical but if someone is really citing references they will cite specific references, not vaguely reference some group of professionals.
In the point system, I'm afraid that jargon and journalese will have to be worth a lot. Perhaps as much as 30 or 40 points off. But I will try to be fair. Many very good people in fitness are new to writing and they are sometimes influenced by style and jargon. Although there may not be very much meaning in it they feel there should be and since it sounds neat they may adopt the style. Style over substance is one of the primary writing traps. I think it is a very important section in "Elements of Style" but I cannot locate the specific part in the book I am thinking about. There is, however, one statement in the guidelines on style, starting on page 70, that has always stuck with me:
Avoid fancy words. Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready, and able.
I routinely break many of the rules given in Strunk and White, but I try not to break this particular one. Many authors who overuse fancy words and jargon would like you to think that the regular, every-day English language is inadequate to express their brilliance and knowledge. This is rarely the case. Most jargon is nothing more than nominal. That is, it gives a fancy technical name to something that is described in plain words. You should be aware, then, that most jargon laden strength training information is committing what is called the nominal fallacy. Statements involving a nominal fallacy tend to be definitional statements and it can be thought of as a "naming/explaining" fallacy. Basically, this means that a name (the jargon) is given and this is seen as having explanatory power when it, in fact, does nothing but create a circular statement.
But I digress. It's style over substance I was trying to draw your attention to. Another rule, therefore, to spot jargon and journalese is if the writing seems more focused on how things are said than what is said.
Why Does This Happen?
When this happens by design, it is easy to understand the need for this kind of fancy obscurity. It is a smoke-screen for the incompetent and unqualified to make a buck talking out of their derrieres. I think a quote is in order from somebody who already summed this up a long time ago, Stanislav Andreski in his book Social Sciences as Socery:
The attraction of jargon and obfuscating convolutions can be fully explained by the normal striving of humans for emoluments and prestige at the least cost to themselves, the cost in question consisting of the mental effort and danger of 'sticking one's neck out' or 'putting one's foot in it'. In addition to eliminating such risks, as well as the need to learn much, nebulous verbosity opens a road to the most prestigious academic posts to people of small intelligence whose limitations would stand naked if they had to state what they have to say clearly and succinctly."
The easiest kind of work [in social sciences] is an endless exegesis of widely known texts; and in this case vagueness and obscurity help to provide such work while clarity and conciseness curtail it. Any author who (like Hegel or Husserl) writes in a tenebrous and ponderous fashion, gives work to a large number of smaller fry who can busy themselves commenting on what he really meant; whereas a writer like David Hume or Bertrand Russel, who makes perfectly clear what he means, creates no such opportunities for mediocre intellectuals to make a living by endlessly going round in circles, and so is less likely to become a totem.
The creators of mental fog are boosted into fame by the intellectuals to whose parasitic propensities they have ably ministered.
Now, I could do without words such as emoluments and exegesis, but I can't blame a guy for having a better vocabulary than I do. I think he said what he meant very clearly and I think he hit the nail right on the head.
Before I put this post to bed (that's what we say instead of finish) I'll give you the best of the best, which I have saved for last. Related to the word insider and often used in combination with it is the word secret. Secret insider information is the pinnacle of the bodybuilding BS machine. I wrote a short diatribe on it last year. The pseudoscience detector I mentioned in that post is also a fun and useful exercise. If you see the word secret in a fitness article I don't think you even need to bother with being fair and open minded. Just turn the page. Unless, of course, the author is complaining about the word secret being used in fitness articles!
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This page created 24 Jan 2010 22:37
Last updated 18 Jul 2016 01:31