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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

How To Write Good

Today's episode of Little Miss Know-it-All: Plain language.

The title of this post is just a little joke for all of the people who are already angry at the thought of reading an entire post about plain language.

Most people will at least grudgingly admit that plain language is fine for all that OTHER stuff they don't have time to read. However, there is a real backlash these days.

Plain language is not the magic bullet some people thought it would be. In many cases, it's not the right way to explain an issue. People feel pressured into writing documents in plain language when they feel they really need to use technical words.

The focus on plain language has clouded the real issue, which is really about writing appropriately for an audience.

Most people who write documents write them for their peers or people in the same industry. For example, let's imagine that you're a teacher. It's entirely appropriate for you to talk and write to other educators about learning strategies and child-centred interaction models. Most of the time, this is how you'll write. But occasionally, you'll need to write to someone else, and when you do that, you will probably have to change the words you use.

Every industry has its own jargon, a separate language that allows people to speak to each other very precisely. A double-ender is different than a live-to-tape, although a double-ender could also be live-to-tape. You have no idea what I just said, but that's OK. You don't need to know, and it was rude for me to use those words without explaining what they meant. Please forgive me.

You're not going to forgive me, are you? C'mon, I'm sorry! I won't do it again! I swear on a stack of Brave New Worlds!

HAHAHAHA. That was just a little joke. What, now YOU'RE mad at me too??

I spend a lot of time trying to convince people to use plain language in documents for the public or for another audience without a lot of specialised knowledge. This is an ongoing struggle, because the conversation usually happens with people who have a TON of specialised knowledge and can explain very competently why certain words are important to them. They're doctors or lawyers or journalists or counselors or (the saints preserve us) professional bureaucrats. Their jargon is important. They know that using one word instead of another will change the meaning of a sentence, and they're hesitant to use a general word when they could use one that would express exactly what they mean to the people who use the same jargon.

I completely get this. It would be great if everyone understood the jargon, but the fact is that most people don't. They won't understand what a haematoma or ecchymosis is, but you can use the word "bruise". I know, this is not ideal and you'd prefer to be more specific, but if you're using jargon with someone who doesn't understand it, you're not being specific at all. If the person doesn't understand the words you're using, you need to use different words.

Plain language has been (wrongly) marketed as the way to write to the public or to people with low literacy levels. While it's true that you should almost always write to these groups of people in plain language, it doesn't stop there. People have told me that if their audience is educated, there is no need to write clearly. I actually shook my fists when someone told me that because a document was intended for people with graduate degrees, it could be really complicated.

When you write clearly, you show respect for your readers. People don't have a lot of time to spend with your message, so it's in your interest to make it as easy to understand as possible. Most people won't spend lots of time trying to figure out what you're saying: if they don't understand it the first time they read it, they will stop reading. This has nothing to do with how smart they are, and everything to do with how much effort you've put into helping them to understand what you're trying to say.

I can already hear your objections. You need to communicate something really complicated and your audience needs to understand all of the details. It has to be in Latin! (As I write this, it sounds ridiculous. I must have missed part of your argument because you used really big words.) There is indeed a place for specific language when you're trying to get a message to someone who doesn't understand your jargon, but you have to be very careful about how you're using it. You have to be very clear about what your words mean and why you need to use those specific words. Remember, people who don't understand what you're saying will either stop reading or make up their own meaning. Both of these things are bad when your message is really important.


Anonymous said...

This is exactly why I feel like a complete retard in my graduate courses. We're told to read all these theorists and academic essays, but these people do not know how to write! I swear these people sit next to their essays with a thesaurus with duct tape on the binding because they won't put it down.

No, I'm not an idiot. As a child everyone asked me to rephrase things because they didn't understand my word choice.

Karen said...

Precision in language is different from jargon. A complex idea can be communicated clearly and in language most people will understand - if the writer has bothered to take the time to think through what they want to communicate. I do believe that most poor, jargon-filled writing comes about as the result of either the writer not thinking about what they want to communicate and to whom, or the writer not really understanding what their core message is and covering up that fact with lots of confusing jargon and big words. They're banking on the idea that the "average" person will feel too intimidated by the latter approach to call them on it,especially is there is a difference in education levels between them. But at the end of the day, they've communicated nothing other than the fact they're a pompous self-agrandizing bore.

Are there times when professionals have to use specific terminology? Of course. But that isn't most of the time.

Anonymous said...

You're right, Karen. It seems to be a lot of carelessness or disregard. One of my teachers of many years past told me, when I'm writing a research paper, assume the reader is largely ignorant of the topic. If it's about, say, the reproduction of flowers, it may be a good idea to include the complete anatomy of a flower.

Writing about literature is a bit different in the respect that a person generally doesn't read a scholarly article on a text they have not read. It's those periferal texts within the scholarly article that the writers sometimes overlook. "Yeeeesss, I'm writing about Trouble on Triton and addressing Jameson's theory, but I'm not going to entirely explain the context of Jameson. Eeeeveryone has read Jameson."

I hate Jameson. And if you want to find out why, well...well, you should have read him by now.

Karen said...

As far as Jameson goes, I must support my dear Mr. Smith's theory and abstain....

Seriously Frivolous said...

My fave is in government, where people ask to "liase" with me. They mean they want to talk to me. I giggle whenever I hear someone use the word "liase".

Karen said...

If one more government type insists on telling me how they were "impacted" by a decision, I WILL impact them with the decision upside their head. Grrr...

Megan said...

Two things can be impacted: teeth and feces. Everything else is AFFECTED.

Government types, read that twice.