“If you can’t explain it to a six-year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
Albert Einstein (attr)*
Back in about 2013 I wrote a screed called ‘How to write better’ for the company whose publications I had been hired to improve. I’ve redacted identifying elements, but otherwise it stands up. Here’s the first part.
When you finish writing, it’s tempting to think that the job is done. In fact, the job is only half done. Your writing achieves nothing until it has been read and understood by a reader. To improve our communication with our readers, we need to write more clearly and more briefly. How can we achieve this?
* Einstein probably didn’t say this, or, if he did, he cited a cocktail waitress as his audience of limited understanding. Modern commentators prefer to mitigate his sexism so as not to detract from the valid point he was making. Fair enough.
We tend to go through a two-stage process when writing reports:
- Decide what we want to report
- Phrase it in a manner becoming of a business report
Our writing will be improved immeasurably by simply eliminating Step 2. Business writing is a standing joke among writers and editors. Why would you want to emulate it?
Business writing often consists of long, verbose sentences and paragraphs, full of pompous language, equivocations, clichés and jargon. These often disguise vagueness of thought or sometimes the absence of any original thought at all.
Our overriding principle in all writing must be to communicate our knowledge and insights. This means writing briefly, simply and clearly.
- Say things simply, directly – and briefly
- Stick to the point and avoid unimportant detail
- Put phrases in their natural order
- Keep sentences short
- Keep words short
- Avoid abbreviations in text
- Avoid numbers in text
- And especially avoid those four enemies mentioned above: pompous language, equivocations, clichés and jargon
Complex language causes the reader cognitive strain, which is a major barrier to understanding and acceptance of our analysis, as the following excerpt from an article on the psychology of reading explains:
When people have to exert more energy in order to find a piece of information or manipulate a feature, they can become more vigilant and suspicious. … They may want to examine other options. … They may start to question the credibility of your content [and] the reputation of your company.
Jen Cardello, Nielsen Norman Group
Cardello’s assessment is distilled from Daniel Kahnemann’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, in which the Nobel-Prize-winning psychologist explains that people – all people – will avoid cognitive strain whenever possible. We are deluding ourselves if we believe that our readers will accept cognitive strain because what we are saying is important to them. If our writing gives them cognitive strain, they will avoid it either by losing concentration or stopping reading altogether. This might explain why buyers of our reports ring us up asking for information that is already in the report they have just bought and supposedly read.