Posted 11.16.2023 by Kathy Widenhouse, award-winning content writer, website publisher, and author of 9 books.
I’ve never heard a user complain, “This is too easy to read.” Have you?
That’s why you should write simply.
You want readers to grasp your point, don’t you? A large-scale study of literacy rates in UK teenagers found that they could not read well enough to understand their GCSE exam papers. The data suggests that teenagers have an average reading age of 10 or 11.
The same goes for grown-ups. Around 43% of American adults have basic or below-basic literacy skills, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. Further, research conducted by Nielsen Norman Group found that the average online reader comprehends only about 60% of the content they read.
You want your content to be readable by the everyday person. But maybe you lean towards highfalutin’ writing. If so, ask yourself why. Are you writing to express … or writing to impress?
At least three obstacles may stand in your way of becoming more readable.
You’ve been taught to be formal. Especially on the printed page and particularly when conducting business. Remember the instructions to open a letter with “Dear Ma’am” or “To Whom It May Concern”?
“When I first started teaching business and technical writing seminars for corporate clients, I would occasionally have an attendee who, when I said simple and plain writing is best, argued with me,” says America’s Copywriter, Bob Bly. “They said they had been taught all their life to write in a formal, corporate style — and the conversational style I was teaching in the class was wrong and inappropriate for business.”
Any student, business owner, worker, entrepreneur, doctor, or attorney will tell you that it takes a special skill to express a complex issue in clear terms. Plainspoken prose is a skill these professionals appreciate perhaps more than anyone because of the sheer volume of content they consume.
If writers have learned anything from the Internet Age, it’s that conversational writing is not just for conversation. It’s for everyone, every day. Write simply and readers of all stripes appreciate your content.
By all means, use a respectful tone when you write. But ditch formalities and write like you talk. Ceremony is not necessary unless you are directly addressing the King of England.
Maybe you’ve adopted a highbrow writing style because you are trying to feel sophisticated.
You pepper your content with multisyllabic words because you believe readers will be impressed. And those run-on sentences? Adding phrase upon phrase makes you sound smart. Or so you tell yourself.
The truth is that you feel like a fake. It’s what writers — and other high-visibility performers, like executives, actors, musicians, and public speakers — call The Imposter Syndrome. You doubt your skills and fear that you’ll be exposed as a phony.
For writers, The Imposter Syndrome reveals itself in elitist prose. One way to achieve acceptance or to prove your worth, you mistakenly believe, is with knotty language and a crushing assortment of ideas. That approach may affirm your expertise in your own mind. But the rest of us can’t understand your point.
Padded content and fancy language are not the path to professionalism. Simplicity is.
Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain something to a 6-year-old, then you don’t understand it yourself.” His words pinpoint one reason your content may be devoid of simplicity: you haven’t mastered the topic for yourself, so you wing it. Or you haven’t drilled down to the main point you want to make, so you throw in the entire kit and caboodle.
In either case, you haven’t done the work needed to write simply.
Exertion from the writer makes a better experience for the reader. That according to American author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864). He said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing” — yet another reason to learn to write simply.
That’s not to say that simple writing is the same as simplistic content. Neither Einstein nor Hawthorne would be accused of superficiality. Rather, simple writing is clear and concise — whether it’s a board book about brushing teeth for a six-year-old or a complex nuclear fission research paper presented to a cadre of the world’s leading physicists.
Clarity and conciseness require effort.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once scorned Ernest Hemingway’s simple writing style. “He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words,” Hemingway said. “I do. I just prefer the one-dollar words instead.” To that point, Hemingway’s acclaimed 1952 novella, The Old Man and the Sea, clocks in at a fourth-grade reading level. That means the average 11-year-old can read and understand it.
So while there’s plenty of one-dimensional content available to readers — whether created by Chat GPT or as a lazy writer’s summary of superficial sound bites — you needn’t add to the assortment. Nor must you follow formal conventions or write to impress.
Instead, write to express.
Be different and follow Hemingway’s lead. Simple writing requires effort and extra smarts. But it’s simply better. And better quality is what truly impresses readers.
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