Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Natalie Ames, an associate professor and director of the BSW program in NC State’s Department of Social Work. Her practice experience includes medical social work, individual and group counseling with survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, as well as program development, administration and community outreach. Ames has taught workshops on how to write clearly for national, regional and statewide audiences. This post first appeared on the Oxford University Press’s OUP blog.
Meyer’s law is too often embodied in academic and professional writing: “It is a simple task to make things complex, but a complex task to make them simple.”
Completing multitudinous years of education presumably encourages people to juxtapose one esoteric word after another in order to fabricate convoluted paragraphs formulated of impressively, extensively elongated and erudite sentences. To put it another way: completing many years of education encourages people to write complex paragraphs full of long sentences composed of long words.
What we may not do is consider whether the audiences for our writing will be willing and able to read and understand what we write. In other words, aim for readability. The first step is to identify what your audience needs to know. The next step is to incorporate principles that enable you to tell your audience what they need to know clearly, simply and concisely.
In reality, most of us are both creators and recipients of needlessly complicated prose. Take, for example, the consent forms we sign for medical procedures. Do you read them? Do you understand them? What about the lengthy, convoluted online user agreements we’re asked to accept? Have you ever read one from top to bottom, or do you scroll though and hope for the best when you check the box at the end? We tend to view such documents as complicated for legal reasons, but in actuality, entities including the American Bar Association and the federal government actively advocate using plain language.
There is widespread agreement in the health professions on the need to simplify the language used to communicate health information. There are pleas for business and industry to simplify the language they use to market products. And in academia, clear writing is certainly not the norm. As an academic, I agree with Harvard’s Steven Pinker that the transmission of knowledge would benefit greatly from trading “academese” for plain English.
Those of us who write for audiences of professionals outside our disciplines, or for non-academic audiences including the general public, may not even realize how often we use professional jargon and acronyms that are unfamiliar or indecipherable to others. As a social worker, I know that TANF is the acronym for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. If you’re not a social worker, you may know these programs as “welfare” and “food stamps.”
Like other professionals, social workers also use plenty of jargon including terms such as empowerment, intimate partners, at-risk youth, and strengths-based assessment. I’ll leave you to puzzle over the meaning of those terms and then to consider how often you use your profession’s acronyms and jargon in place of more commonly understood language. If you’re in the habit of doing that, there’s a good chance you are confusing, rather than informing, people who read what you write.
Last, but not least, we may feel compelled to demonstrate how much we know by presenting ideas in technical terms, using three or four words when one would do, or choosing obscure words (particularly if they contain many syllables) over more easily recognizable ones. When you want to communicate to those outside your profession or discipline, consider the potential benefits of presenting information in plain language, “…clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary” (Eagleson, 1990). That will increase your chances of reaching readers who know less than you do and who might benefit from the information you’re trying to convey.
This is not a plea for dumbing down, that ugly term some people use to describe easy-to-read written material. It is possible to convey ideas and information in writing that is pleasurable and easy for most people to read and comprehend. Personally, I’ve never heard anyone complain about writing that was too easy to understand or wish they’d had to expend more time and effort to understand something they just read. If we don’t seek to baffle and bewilder our readers, it should be worth investing a bit of time and effort in putting our messages across clearly and concisely. Why bother otherwise?