On Honesty in Commentary

In recent posts, I’ve critiqued an article (here) and suggested limitations in a product (here). (I pulled a third critical post, one in which I reviewed a book.)

Writing the first of those posts prompted me to publish this item on LinkedIn. I jokingly describe it as a public-service announcement. (It’s been read so far by around 3,600 people; I never have any idea what people are inclined to read online.) Here are the opening two sentences:

What do I owe myself and my readers? My honest take, free of snark and personal attacks, on commentary and products that relate to contract language and the contracts process.

I’ll now contemplate my navel some more by considering what I mean by “honest.”

Someone who read the first post said that my style often sounds aggressive. And over the years, a handful of readers have observed that I’m combative. One reader harangued me about it. So my invoking honesty brought to mind a couple of lines from the Paul Simon song, “Tenderness”:

Just give me some tenderness
Beneath your honesty

Is my honesty a cover for belligerence? I, uh, honestly don’t think so. In personal relationships, sure, honesty can be a stick with which to beat the other person with. But we’re talking here about the marketplace of ideas, the whole point of which is to test the mettle of ideas.

And my topic is clarity in contract drafting. It doesn’t involve conjecture, or one’s personal philosophy. Instead, the data are readily accessible. And distinguishing between alternative usages simply requires a measure of semantic acuity.

Furthermore, this stuff matters: contracts are essential to business, livelihoods are built around contracts, and handling contracts inefficiently wastes vast amounts of time and money and causes organizations to assume unnecessary risk.

So not only is my chosen subject one that is conducive to picking winners and losers, I feel it’s my responsibility to pick them, and to state my views clearly.

Beyond that, this is a blog: I have to entertain readers and myself. So I might use metaphor and describe an article as “hollow.” If you’re prone to being aggravated, that metaphor might be more aggravating than the underlying explanation. But that’s because it captures the reader’s attention, which is what I want to do.

The line between being engaging and being a jerk is a fine one, and I’ll do my best to make sure I don’t stray on the wrong side. But I think my tone has been consistent over the years, and it has prompted few complaints. (In a handful of posts I respond to what I regard as unjustified attacks. Those posts are rather different.)

I suggest that the source of any contention is often structural. In the marketplace of ideas, you trade salvos. I elect to critique something you wrote, but perhaps you weren’t clear in making a particular point, or I misunderstood you. Or perhaps you would have handled it differently if you had been aware of my point. If instead we were to discuss stuff in real time, or were to exchange our views privately, we’d probably find more common ground, and reach it with less contention. I expect that opportunities to try those alternatives appear infrequently, but I’ll bear them in mind.

Now, here’s that Paul Simon song:

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.