Interrupting the Heat Wave with a Simple Writing Request

July 07, 2012  •  Leave a Comment
Can it get any hotter outside? Yes, and according to weather.com, it could reach 109 today. That’s about 43 for anyone born outside the United States. I’m not even going to attempt to leave the house for fear that I will spontaneously combust. Instead, I’ll enjoy the air conditioning and plow through the stack of magazines that’s been growing on my coffee table.
 
For more effective writing, KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. It shows respect for your reader's time and increases the chances that he or she will read your document. 
My magazine-reading habits are like those of most people, according to what they teach in the communications seminars I attend. We prefer articles we can scan quickly and lots of white space, graphics and photos. When we come across long blocks of text, we tend to feel overwhelmed, unwilling to invest our time on long sentences that lead us down a long confusing path with no sign of reward at the end.
 
We feel the same way about insurance, legal and financial documents, pretty much anything you’d find in the business world. Don’t get me wrong; our preferences don’t mean that we’re stupid or illiterate. People are just really busy.
 
Don’t Forget to KISS: Keep Is Simple, Stupid
If given the choice, I’m sure that people would choose the concise, simply worded document over the long one filled with words you’d find on an SAT test. So why do people continue to churn out documents that look like they are a college essay? Is it because they believe they will look more intelligent? Actually, a Harvard study says that the opposite is true.
 
Although it takes practice, it’s possible to simplify your writing by using short words and short sentences without sounding like you’re talking down to people. You wouldn’t use those long sentences and big vocabulary words if you were talking to someone, so write like you are having a conversation with the reader.
 
How to Simplify Your Writing
Following are some suggestions from a writing bootcamp that I recently attended:
 
  •  Replace long words with short words that mean the same thing. For example, use instead of utilize, have or feel instead of experience, home instead of residence.
  • Cut words that would not change the meaning of the sentence if removed. Delete phrases like it is believed that, in my opinionand in terms of.
  • Don’t use a phrase when a word will do. Replace that point in time with then or when, cut because of the fact that to because; shorten in order to show to show. 
  • Use active voice instead of passive so the reader knows who is performing the action, and that the person or organization is taking accountability.   
  • Use bullets, subheads and graphics to break up your text.
  • Avoid referring to the reader in the third person. Write as you would speak, using you or the imperative voice. My city government should be fined for breaking this rule on a regular basis, constantly issuing alerts and instructions on what citizens or residents should do in various situations. Considering the low literacy rates where I live, most people probably can’t even read the words, let alone realize that the information is directed toward them. Please, Madam Mayor, just say you. Also, leaders, please stop referring to yourself in the first person. Geez, even the president of the United States says we, not I.
  • Avoid overuse of bold, italics, capitalized and underlined text because it overwhelms and confuses the reader, often making him feel like he is under attack.
  • Use spell check, but proofread afterward. Spell check will not notify you if you typed loose instead of lose because it’s still a word. 

What’s the Point?
Writing simply shows respect for your reader’s time. It also increases the chance that he or she will read your document and take the action you request, which is your ultimate goal.
 
Not sold? Research has shown that people overestimate the vocabulary knowledge of others by 30 percent. That means that your reader might not understand about a third of what you’re writing, which is sort of like trying to read a foreign novel after only a few years of language class. It doesn’t work. Trust me.
 
If you still need convincing, a study by the University of Baltimore showed that people at high literacy levels actually benefit more than people at lower levels when reading simplified materials.
 
The bottom line: For everyday use, try simple, concise writing. Save the big words for the New York Times crossword puzzle.
 
We now return you to the scheduled heat wave. 
 

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