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5 Ways to Simplify Your Writing

July 25, 2012

When I was hanging out in the English department at university, big words were all the rage. The cynic in me says that academics use long and fancy words to keep some distance between them and the  the riff-raff. The less cynical side of me says that big words are fun, and if you have an audience who can appreciate and understand them, then why the hell not use them?

Some of the words I was fond of in my thesis-writing time were ‘conflate’, ‘inextricable’, and ‘valorise’. The latter one I remember arguing about with my dad, who was adamant that it wasn’t a real word. But he also didn’t know who Foucault was, so he was clearly an intellectual inferior – law degree or not.

The past decade I’ve spent in PR has wiped all such frippery from my writing. I remember one of the first media releases I read being rife with cliche – ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ for example – and it got a great run in the papers. In fact, I soon realised that the quotes a journalist lifts from a media release are indeed replete with cliche and colloquialisms.

So when I listened to a lecture by an philosophy academic the other day, it was like entering another world: a verbose world paved by lexical meanderings. He used words like ‘discourse’ – a sure sign of someone steeped in postmodern theory.

On one hand, I was tut-tutting at his obvious intellectual posturing, and on the other, I revelled in the fun of it all. ‘Ah, it’s nice to have a bit of a lark in the world of academic English’.

And then? I got bored.

I listen to a lot of pretty serious lectures on my iPod, from economic theory through to cosmology, and I enjoy the majority of them. But this guy was snoresville. I ditched him for some Shane Nicholson after about 10 minutes.

Which is all a really long introduction to my big question: when does simplifying language veer into dumbing it down? How do we draw a line between enjoying articulate and imaginative language, and sounding like a tosser?

I suspect it’s a very tricky thing. And just like in The Castle, it comes down to ‘the vibe’ of it all. If a piece of sophisticated writing makes you want to keep reading, then it has worn its learning lightly.

Good science writers exemplify this – yesterday I read a fantastic piece comparing our financial systems to biological systems, and I didn’t feel at all put off by the fact it was written by a theoretical physicist.

By contrast, poor writers can twist even simple words into confusing and painful sentences; unfortunately, a lot of these writers seem to draft the media releases of the world.

But I can always tell if someone hasn’t understood what they are writing about, because it comes through in their poor expression (which makes life a little hard for my team sometimes).

So, here are some tips for simplifying your writing (without dumbing it down):

  1. Be ruthless: you can always find more words to chop out, so make sure you edit your work at least once, ideally twice or three times.
  2. Read aloud: if your sentences are long and tortured, you’ll find out when you try and say them.
  3. Be honest: is this really your best draft, or just the one you’ve done to get it off your to-do list?
  4. Take the ‘mum’ test: if your mum read this, would she understand what it’s about? This is particularly relevant to technical topics – does it sound like a TED talk, or a textbook?
  5. Ask questions: if you don’t understand the content, you need to push your topic expert until you do. Bust their jargon and unpack their robot-speak until you know what every word means, and can translate and explain each one.

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And find me on Twitter – @bowhite 

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4 Comments
  1. Your introspective ruminations perpetually enkindle profound cogitation.

  2. Being intellectually inferior I will resist the temptation to extemporise, except to say that sometimes you might want that fancy word for impact, even if the punters will have to google it. Or it might be just the right word, and to use something allegedly simpler would lose the nuance. Good post though. Dad

    • Yes, using the word ‘extemporise’ may cause me to reconsider my view on your intellectual capacity.

      I totally agree about nuance – the slippery slope of simplifying language is that we may end up with Orwell’s ‘double-speak’, and run out of all the fun words. It’s a balancing act, to be sure.

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