This blog shares some of our thoughts about plain language, and the latest discussions about plain English and clear design in New Zealand, and around the world.

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22 June 2010

Down with Dumbing Down

I was listening to the radio as I chopped the vegetables for a hearty winter soup the other day when I heard a discussion on-air about the terrible tendency to ‘dumb everything down’ to the lowest common denominator. The person speaking was bemoaning the way complex ideas are treated in the mass media. It’s a bad thing to try to express subtle arguments and difficult concepts simply, he argued— they just can’t be reduced to something everyone can understand, and nor should they be.

I’m sure you’ve heard the argument before—that this tendency to ‘dumb everything down’ has gone too far.

I found myself chopping carrots rather furiously as I reacted to the suggestion that a piece of long-winded, verbose writing is somehow more intelligent, subtle, and on a higher level than succinct, clear writing. Dumbing down is obviously seen as inferior. The word ‘dumb’ is insulting, and dumb writing is supposedly only for idiots. Or is it?

It’s time to defend simplicity, I told the carrots. There’s a world of difference between dumbing writing down, and clarifying it so that readers can easily understand it.

Let’s be clear about what we mean here. No one in their right mind would suggest that a piece of literature should be rewritten to simplify it. Even notoriously difficult novels that make readers work hard to comprehend them have their place. I remember struggling through classics like Finnegan’s Wake when I was studying. I had to reread paragraphs many times over, and was still mystified about what the author, James Joyce, meant. But I’d defend absolutely Joyce’s right to express himself in whatever writing style he chooses.

Literature, however, is very different from business writing — or any writing that aims to provide information.
If you want people to read and understand what you have written, why would you write in a style that prevents that happening? Perhaps because writing simply is harder, and more demanding. Blaise Pascal famously said ‘I have made this longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter’. Many writers have expressed the same idea; that short, clear writing is harder to produce than something long-winded. Anyone who has sweated over choosing just the right words to express something knows how true that is.

Sometimes, the desire to show off is greater than the desire to communicate. We’ve all read those wordy, overblown pieces where the writer is obviously determined to demonstrate just how highly educated they are. Often, they only succeed in confusing or boring the reader.
The jargon that comes with most specialist areas is an added barrier to understanding. Jargon can exist as a short-cut to a lengthy explanation, but more often it’s a way of showing that the writer is part of the exclusive club that understands what the jargon means.

And writing that glorifies sentences with so many sub-clauses that the original subject and object are buried is usually not only dull but also sloppy. It’s simply not necessary to write sentences that are 10 lines long. When I see this sort of writing, I itch to cut a swathe through it with a red pen!
So let’s not buy into the ‘dumbing down’ attack. When we’re talking about writing that’s simple and clear, it’s not about dumbing down, but powering up!

19 June 2010

Plain English for doctors, lawyers, and college professors

I have to confess that a book title like *How to write plain English: a book for lawyers and consumers by Rudolph Flesch, gets me excited. Luckily I spend much of my working life surrounded by people who become equally sparkly-eyed at such a find.

The book didn’t disappoint. It’s filled with wonderful examples of legal texts, including many contracts and regulations that were successfully re-written in plain English. It even has a section on how to write plain math.

But the very best bit was in the Foreword. ‘Life treats people unequally. Some barely make it through senior high, or perhaps a few years at university. Others go to the finest schools of graduate learning and become doctors, lawyers, or college professors. But even for this latter group, there is hope. They can learn to write in plain English.’

Actually, as much as we chuckled, we know that last sentence is true — some of the strongest advocates for plain English among our clients are lawyers! Times are changing.

And yes. The author of the book, Rudolph Flesch, is the very same person who pioneered the concept of document readability and invented the Flesch Readability Formula. The book may have been written in 1979 but it’s as relevant today as it was then.

*Flesch, R. How to write plain English: a book for lawyers and consumers. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.

08 June 2010

Writing clearly shows that you respect your clients

We’re renovating a house at the moment. I am amazed at how I’m making decisions — I just realised I’m choosing to use companies’ services based on how clear their writing is.

I emailed about eight property valuers asking for quotes. One valuer rang me and answered my questions over the phone. She was just lovely, and she mentioned she’d follow up the phone call with an email. As soon as I got the email, I was put off. The email was full of phrases she didn’t use on the phone to me, like ‘should you wish to proceed’ and ‘we can sometimes expidite this if required'. She suddenly seemed pompous, stiff, and distancing. I guess I was also put off by assuming that it would be difficult to read her report after the valuation.

By contrast, transferring the mortgage to Kiwibank has been a pleasant experience. All the paperwork I’ve received from Kiwibank has spoken to me like a normal person talking to another normal person. It has a direct, clear tone, with few complex words. Very little in the writing has confused me. The Kiwibank lawyers’ documents are written clearly too. I’m most impressed, and I’ve discovered I look forward to receiving their documents in the mail.

I can’t be the only person who judges service companies by their writing. To me, it makes such sense to write clearly — to write how you would speak if you were face to face with a client. Writing clearly means you don’t distance your clients or make them feel stupid because they don’t understand the terms you use. Writing clearly means your clients feel like your equals. They feel you respect them. So they warm to you, and you get their business.