Writing Readable Documents


In our last blog , we talked about Orwell's theory that bad writing is caused by lazy thinking (to paraphrase) and lazy thinking leads to bad writing. In other words (no pun intended), bad writing/lazy thinking is a never-ending cycle, which is why we should think carefully about the words we choose, which we discussed our blog "Words Matter ."

On that note, then, Orwell also wrote about what he called "pretentious diction." In a nutshell, pretentious diction is using complex words that have a simpler equivalent, a habit that we see often in the writing of the professionals we work with. One of the more common examples is "utilize." Why use "utilize" when "use" means the same thing and is simpler? I often pose this question in the writing courses I teach and the answer most often given is "because it sounds smarter." Really? According to whom? "Utilize" is problematic for many reasons, one of which is that it has become a cliche. I've heard this word used by gas stations when describing the tools they use to change your oil. Smarter indeed!

Relying on cliches can make us look lazy (and we may be using these words because we are lazy), but using the complex equivalent of simpler words can also decrease the readability of the document. A simple tool we can use to test readability is the Gunning Fog Index . This tool (the Flesch-Kincaid Index  is another such tool) measures readability based on the number of syllables in a word and gives a higher score to words with three or more syllables. In other words, the higher the score, the more years of formal education one would need to be able to understand the text on the  first reading . Compare these two sentences:

1. Foghorn made a determination to utilize the wagon to manuever the expansive pillar so that it would be eliminated. [18.13]

2. Foghorn used the wagon to remove the rock. [3.2]

In the first example, a reader would need to have 18.13 years of formal education to be able to read and understand the sentence, but only 3.2 years in the second. The idea of the sentence is simple, yet I've magnified its complexity by using too many, and unnecesary, words to get the point across, in addition to using words that contain three or more syllables. This is common tactic many workplace professionals use, perhaps unintentionally. 

The point is that too many professionals unnecessarily increase the complexity of their ideas by using too many words or words that are more complex than the situation calls for. This typically happens because they spend too little time considering the complexity or simplicity of an idea and how best to relay that information (see our blog , "Shorter versus Longer Sentences"); the result is often a document that's unnecessarily complex and hard to read. 

Don't misunderstand: simplifying information does not mean "dumbing down." It means thinking critically about the idea, its complexity, your readers, and your purpose to convey an idea in its purest form. That is, showing readers, by the language we use, how to use the information. Using more words than necessary increases the complexity of the idea, just as using multiple-syllable words do.

Helping readers read and understand a document on the first reading is vital, especially in this world of five to seven second soundbites. If we're unable to do this, the reader may not read and our idea may be lost.  

So the next time you're eager to use a three-syllable word, ask yourself if there's a simpler equivalent. Your readers will thank you, and you'll be more likely to get your point across the first time.