BUT is a hurtful word: what writing lesson can we learn from dressage?

Have you ever noticed how the word “but” can rip the positivity out of the words preceding it in whatever you’re writing …at the expense of your poor readers who may suffer from its nasty negativity?

why the word BUT can be unnecessarily negative

Dressage: Easy? Sure. Like threading a needle blindfolded is easy.

Being a weirdo, when I’m not writing in here or for my own books or my clients’ books and blogs, guess what I do in my spare time? I write. And none of this namby-pamby keyboard or touch screen stuff. This is hard core handwriting on paper with a pen, cramped up in a car or sometimes in a drafty little wooden shack with a leaking roof in pouring rain and no heating. In mid-winter. Sheer masochism?

No: it’s the glorious, elegant sport of dressage, sometimes known as “ballet on horseback” and laughed at by some who think it’s all about a silly horse prancing up and down while the rider sits quietly on its back doing their knitting.

Easy? Sure. Like threading a needle blindfolded is easy

Oh, how wrong they are. Having competed at a modest level in this sport myself and found out the hard way that both horse and rider use every muscle, bone, tendon and ligament in their bodies in different ways at the same time and still manage to look normal, I’d say it’s the most difficult equestrian discipline to do well, although it’s relatively safe.

These days after having had numerous body parts removed due to cancer and dealing with the consequences of treatment (not bitching: I’m still here) I can’t ride any more but I still love the sport. So when I can, I “write for the judge” in dressage competitions, taking the judge’s comments down in dictation and scoring each movement that the competitors complete.** This is not unlike being an air traffic controller or simultaneous translator, requiring total concentration, and means for the duration I have not time to breathe never mind worry about work, Brexit, Trump, paying the utility bills or getting the Cockapoos clipped. It’s glorious.

Why writing the word “but” can be unnecessarily hurtful

This is where, after more than 300 words of preamble, I get to the point. Dressage judges often – nay, usually –  phrase their comments along the following lines:

  • Good entry and straightness, but turn at C a little wobbly
  • Very good steps in working trot but stumbled at A
  • Good circle shape but give and retake could be shown more
  • Very good attempt at medium strides but lost balance on turn at K
  • Impressive extended trot but disappointing turn at F
dressage arena markings

If you’d like to know where the above letters are in a 40 x 20 metre dressage arena, here’s how they’re placed – with some words to help us remember them. In competitions where there is only one judge/writer, we sit by C (carried).

What comments like these do is to deflate and denigrate the value of the good performance immediately preceding the so-so one, which is very discouraging for the rider. Despite these comments being part of a competion, not a training session, riders will hope to learn something from the judge’s comments and hopefully gain a little inspiration from them. Using the word but doesn’t help anyone.

Let’s look at these comments again with that B word removed:

  • Good entry and straightness – turn at C a little wobbly
  • Very good steps in working trot – stumbled at A
  • Good circle shape, give and retake could be shown more
  • Very good attempt at medium strides, just lost balance on turn at K
  • Impressive extended trot, disappointing turn at F

If you were a dressage rider reading the comments above, wouldn’t you find them less negative than those in section higher up?

Writing better without “but” in other circumstances

In many forms of business, marketing and other communication the word but similarly can implant a negative into the narrative, and often a rather unpleasant one.

Think, for example, how the word “but” can belittle the following:

An excellent candidate but needs to work a little harder on their communication skills

Fascinating study of our marketing plans over the next two years, but needs even more emphasis on sales criteria

Brilliant start and continuation into an intrguing novel, but should have more oomph in the mid-section before the main climax

Love their blog about gardening but I’m looking forward to their updates further into Spring

Really enjoy your blog about legal issues but hope you get more readers

Now, with the B word gone and some softer replacements:

An excellent candidate; just needs to work a little harder on their communication skills

Fascinating study of our marketing plans over the next two years, and needs even more emphasis on sales criteria

Brilliant start and continuation into an intrguing novel; just should have more oomph in the mid-section before the main climax

Love their blog about gardening and I’m looking forward to their updates further into Spring

Really enjoy your blog about legal issues and hope you get more readers

How do you feel about the B word but?

Do you agree it can add negativity where little or none is deserved? Please share your thoughts!

PS **In case you’re wondering, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to do this commenting/scoring using technology, for the last 20 years. There are two main reasons why it’s a non-starter:

  1. Even in competitions of the highest level, and/or where dressage is part of a larger whole (e.g. eventing or combined training) budgets usually are just not big enough to afford more than sharpened pencils, never mind tablets, 4G, BlueTooth, laptops, printers for results, etc.
  2. Speed. No matter how efficient an IT system might be, the process of generating a dressage “sheet” containing the judge’s comments and marks … being sent to the Secretary’s office, being processed, printed out and handed to the competitor, would take longer than it does for a runner to canter up there with the handwritten hard copy from the arenas. Could technology beat that? Hmmm. What do you think?


With many thanks to Equine World for the loan of their dressage arena diagram.

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