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Squid Ink and Hierarchy

Posted Mar 07, 2022 by Ray Patrick

What Squids and Bad Writers Have in Common

Perhaps you’ve heard of “squid ink” as a pejorative term for obfuscatory writing. The idea is that a squid and a bad writer squirt huge clouds of ink for the same reason: to blind their enemy and escape a fight they otherwise couldn’t win.

Cephalopods using ink to escape foes.
Cephalopods using ink to escape foes.

Squid ink verbosity can be found everywhere, from social science journal entries (trolls included) to lefty memes. This is not to say that all verbosity is bad. You can’t avoid some verbosity in deep technical discussions that truly require specialized vocabulary. In contrast, squid ink verbosity is more of a sleight-of-hand trick. Using this trick, the squid can deflect all but the most expert criticism. Bad writers, underperformers, and amygdala-damaged idealogues all employ it liberally.

Squids in Make-Work Jobs

This trick is most widely practiced in make-work jobs, such as those found in the public sector. Over time, as fake jobs have proliferated, some people have found themselves in the unenviable position of having to convince everyone (including themselves) that their jobs are super important. So, they spare no expense to inflate mundane tasks into heroic tales of ingenuity and sacrifice.

Another perennial squid tactic is jargonization. If you make the simple complicated, normal people will be unable to understand what you’re saying. This is a good way for squid to simulate the status that comes from actually knowing useful information on a difficult subject. Over the past 20 years or so, the military has coupled jargonization with excessive acronym usage: “chow hall” became “dining facility,” which became “DFAC” (“DEE-fack”); “orderly room” became “Commander’s Support Staff,” which became “CSS”; “quitting time” became “close of business,” which became “COB”; and on and on. It’s fairly common to see junior officers (the military equivalent of yuppie power-talkers) using sentences composed almost entirely of acronyms:

FYSA this ROM must hit TPRT prior to eSSS IAW CC guidance and sq SOP.
Submit CRM NLT COB 3 Mar. Neg replies required.

Capt Snuffy

This may have been acceptable (if merely necessary) during the days of radioteletype over HF comm links. When somebody writes that way in a modern email, they’re intentionally obfuscating their language to signal that their job is big and important. It’s nothing but squid ink.

Powerpoint Poisoning

Speaking of military squid ink, there’s one example that I just can’t pass up: Acquisitions. In fairness, it really is quite complicated, involving U.S. public law as well as special requirements of each military service. Even so, I can explain Department of Defense acquisitions pretty succinctly. It’s the process by which the DoD

  1. Identifies an operational need,
  2. Looks for existing solutions,
  3. Invites industry to invent a solution if none is found,
  4. Picks the best design, and
  5. Contracts the winner to build the final product under government supervision.

After the product (rifle, aircraft, missile, satellite, software, whatever) is delivered to the service that will use it, there’s a process called “sustainment,” where the DoD

  1. Ensures the item is adequately maintained,
  2. Ensures the service has access to required training and documentation,
  3. Provides for any needed upgrades or modifications, and
  4. Handles final disposal once the item becomes unneeded or otherwise obsolete.

Of course, I’m able to simplify things when speaking at this level. When discussing the minutiae of actual acquisitions work, you can expect circumstances to be much more complicated. However, I bet even the most cynical reader would still be flabbergasted by the way the DoD has decided to represent this process. I’m speaking of the MILITARY ACQUISITIONS WALLCHART, a three-foot monstrosity that’s such a horrendous self-parody of government busywork that I would laugh if it weren’t for crying:

You just can’t make this up. (click here for full-sized image)
You just can’t make this up. (click here for full-sized image)

There’s a lot I could say about it, but I like Wired.com’s take:

“Stare long enough, and you’ll start to see why it takes a decade for the Defense Department to buy a tanker plane, or why marines are still reading web pages with Internet Explorer 6.”

Actually, the entire government is afflicted with this squid disease, not just the military. After the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, the great data visualization pioneer Edward Tufte highlighted some of the organizational shortfalls at NASA that led up to the tragedy. He showed that Thiokol, the firm that manufactured the fatally-flawed solid rocket boosters, failed to actually communicate the link between cold weather and O-ring failure on earlier Shuttle flights despite creating more than a dozen slides on the topic. Seventeen years later, the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia under similar circumstances demonstrated that the problem was still there. Prof. Tufte claimed that the Columbia tragedy was related to “a PowerPoint festival of bureaucratic hyperrationalism” in which a single slide contained six different levels of hierarchy (chapters and subheads), thereby obfuscating the conclusion that damage to the left wing might have been significant. That brings me to my final point:


Unless your work is in one of very few specific fields, such as law or certain kinds of technical writing, you should immediately slap yourself hard in the face whenever you feel the urge to use more than three levels of headings. And when I say “three levels,” I include the title-level heading, of which there should be precisely one.

Think I’m being unreasonable? Richard Feynman summarized all of modern physics, from celestial mechanics to quantum electrodynamics, using only two levels of headings. If your subject is less complicated than that (and it probably is), two levels of hierarchy ought to serve you fine.

The bottom line is, if you can’t explain something in a simple manner, without resorting to squid ink, you don’t understand it. Professor Patrick Winston of MIT used to give a famous lecture called “How to Speak.” If you can make time to watch it, I strongly commend it to you. You’ll find that in really learning how to speak, you’ll become a much better writer and a much better thinker. That, my friend, is the cure to squid disease.

“If you can’t explain something in simple terms, you don’t understand it.”
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Topics: writing