Work and tools

How to read a formal document

David Allen Green – The Law and Policy Blog

Words provide powerful tools. They can be used to make things clear and they can be used to obfuscate. They can reveal what their author is thinking and wants you to think – and sometimes they can reveal more than the author intends. Some words are quite casually written, even with though with serious purpose, but often words are written with great care and deliberation to communicate an intended message very precisely – though sometimes that intention is to leave an impression in the reader’s mind which is at some distance from the facts of whatever is being described. Omission and misdirection are as present as clear exposition.

Being able to parse carefully constructed documents is a core skill in understanding political systems and actions (and not only those, of course). In the days when that was pretty much all anybody had to go on in trying to understand the politics of the Soviet Union, the art of textual interpretation at a distance was known as kremlinology. I was trained in that art long ago, grappling with long and turgid speeches by politburo members reproduced in the pages of Pravda, to find the one nugget which was new or pointed to a possible change of priorities or direction, to be found with odd consistency somewhere around two thirds of the way through.

This post provides an expert tutorial in interpretation for slightly easier circumstances, but with no less need of close attention to detail. The two basic rules it sets out apply with equal power to any formally constructed political document, whether that is a Soviet speech or a British ministerial letter. The first rule is to identify what is there and understand why it is there. The second rule is to identify what might have been there but isn’t and consider why it is not. There’s a bit more to it than that – and the whole post is well worth reading – but the simple application of those rules is enough to provide more insight than a less questioning reading can do.