Is it “fleshing out” or “flushing out”?

Flesh Out
Hardly a week goes by in the ad business when, after reviewing some initial concepts, someone says: “We need to flesh out these ideas” or “Let’s flush out this idea.” As a writer (who may be just a teensy bit OCD about language usage), I cringe whenever I hear the latter.

If you’re one of those who say that you’re going to “flush out” an idea, don’t feel too bad. According to Merriam-Webster, “Flesh out” and “Flush out” are among the Top 10 Commonly Confused Words. Here’s how they explain which should be used:

Question: “To provide more details, should you flush out or flesh out your plan?”

Answer: “flesh out”

How to remember it: Think of fleshing out a skeleton. To flesh out something is to give it substance, or to make it fuller or more nearly complete.

To flush out something is to cause it to leave a hiding place, e.g., “The birds were flushed out of the tree.” It can also be used figuratively, as in “flush out the truth.”

Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t mention it in the section above, “flush out” can also mean to clean something by forcing water through it— such as flushing out a radiator. This meaning of the word seems to have no relevance to advertising ideas. Unless you’re talking about ideas so bad they need to be flushed down the toilet.

At this point, I think it should be clear that what we do is “flesh out” ideas. We expand upon them, we pull them together and make something more complete with them. Just as an artist builds upon a sketch of a person, adding the flesh to an almost sticklike initial drawing, so, too, do we build upon an idea. We do not drive it out of hiding, or clean it out with water.

One more thing: Don’t buy into the “Oh, what does it matter? People know what I’m trying to say” defense for using the wrong term. We’re supposed to be experts at this business. That includes using the correct expression for what it is that we do.

Let me know if you have any thoughts that could flesh this out a bit more.

September 30, 2013 · Posted by in copywriting  


3 Responses to “Is it “fleshing out” or “flushing out”?”

  1. Pete Prodoehl on October 9th, 2013 5:03 pm

    I’ve never heard of “flushing out” ideas, but I can see that working if you allow for “flushing” as the forcing out of ideas when you might be hesitant to share them. Think of a meeting where people have ideas but aren’t willing to speak up, we could “flush out” their ideas and get them out into the open.

  2. joe on November 15th, 2013 3:03 pm

    Ah, yes. The reticent, withdrawn ad agency person who is afraid to throw an idea on the table. We see that all the time in this business, right? Perhaps a water boarding treatment would aid in flushing out the ideas from such individuals?

    Seriously, though, some may argue that “flushing out ideas” is analogous to coming up with concepts in the same way that hunters flush out birds from the brush, often by scaring them out with barking dogs. I beg to differ.

    For someone to “flush out” a concept (i.e. come up with a concept), does not that suggest that, like a hidden bird, the concept fully exists in one’s head somewhere? I don’t think that’s the nature of an advertising concept. It’s not fully formed and ready to go, just hidden somewhere inside someone’s head. So, the notion that one could somehow coax or startle a fully formed idea out of the inner reaches of one’s cerebellum just seems ridiculous.

    However, I did come across one explanation of how “flushing out” an idea could make sense. On an online forum, someone commented that he thought it alluded to a carpenter ensuring that all the surfaces of an object are flush, with nothing sticking up or creating an unsightly gap. In that sense of the word, I can see how saying “Let’s flush out this idea” would make sense. It would mean to finalize a concept so there are no “rough edges.”

    But, really, how many people who use the “flush out” terminology in the advertising world are actually likening it to making surfaces flush?

    Probably none.

  3. Pete Prodoehl on November 15th, 2013 3:23 pm

    The carpentry analogy is a stretch… I don’t buy it.

    But I do think people can have fully formed ideas they are not sharing openly.

    I’m sure I’m even guilty of it from time to time. :)

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