The myth behind complex language and 3 useful techniques to write simply
I’ve worked in 2 content roles in government in the past 2 years. It’s the first government stint in my 15-year career in online communications.
I’ve enjoyed working here so much more than I ever imagined. People are passionate about their work and genuinely care about the public.
The hardest part about settling in?
There’s so much useful, informative government content. But I find it frustrating and hard to whizz through content filled with complex words and acronyms.
Of course, many other industries are infected with complex writing too, including science, health, and technology.
In this piece, I reflect on why we write in such a complex way. I also share:
- 3 powerful techniques I use every day to simplify content
- fascinating usability research
- best practices.
How did we ever think acronyms, big words and long, confusing sentences were the way to write?
It’s a myth many of us grew up with. And it’s reinforced at school, at university, and at work: writing big, complex words make us sound smarter. And more professional.
Perhaps readers will think our messages are more important if they’re written in a sophisticated way.
But what we don’t realise is how frustrated readers get when content is too hard to digest:
‘I don’t have time for gobbledygook. I like getting the information fast.’ That’s the comment from a participant in a writing for web study by usability expert, Nielson Norman Group.
Perhaps we think our readers are educated professionals. Yet it’s been found professionals and experts prefer plain language.
Even Albert Einstein said, ‘If you cannot explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’
You see, readers don’t read much online — reading on the web is different from reading print. Online, we’ve got less than 10 seconds to get our key message across.
So how do we write for our readers online and get our messages across quickly? Below are 3 powerful techniques I use often.
- Use simple words
- Chunk content
- Write out acronyms
In How users read on the web, Norman Nielson Group’s participants complained about writing that was hard to understand:
‘This [movie] review needs a complete rewrite to put it into more down-to-earth language so that just anybody could read it and understand.’
‘I prefer informal writing, because I like to read fast. I don’t like reading every word, and with formal writing, you have to read every word, and it slows you down.’
Use simple words instead of complex words — the types of words we’d use in conversation.
Examples of simple word replacements
Instead of ‘prohibit’, use ‘ban’
Instead of ‘communicate’, use ‘tell us’, ‘let us know’
Instead of ‘demonstrate’, use ‘show’ Diversity: use ‘range’
Instead of ‘facilitate’, use ‘help’
Instead of ‘amend’, use ‘change’
Resources to help you choose simple words
Breaking down large pieces of content is called ‘chunking’. It’s a concept from cognitive psychology that helps us to memorise and understand information.
We could write a paragraph of 10 lines as a daunting wall of text that may repel our readers — or we can chunk.
Below is a visual comparison of what chunking can do for your writing. Which entices you to read? (Note this exercise doesn’t need you to read the text, only to decide which attracts you visually)
Chunking example 1
Chunking example 2
You might notice that Example 2 is gentler on the eyes and less daunting to begin reading than Example 1.
Chunking is helpful because people don’t read every word on a web page — 79% of people scan web pages. Let’s help our readers scan for the information they’re looking for — or give them the gist of our message quickly.
Chunking helps our readers skim better making it more likely they’ll understand, remember our words, and act on them.
My favourite ways to chunk are to:
- cut paragraphs and sentences
- use dot points for lists
- create helpful subheadings.
All this creates white space which makes it easier for readers to scan.
Here’s an example:
‘The Teaching Excellence Program, being delivered by the Victorian Academy of Teaching and Leadership, is an Australian-first program of advanced professional learning for highly skilled teachers in government, Catholic and independent schools. The learning undertaken by these most highly skilled Victorian teachers will be constructed, enabled and supported by Master Teachers identified to work within each of eight Disciplinary streams.’
‘The Teaching Excellence Program is the first professional learning program in Australia. It is for skilled teachers in:
- Government schools
- Catholic schools
- Independent schools.
Master Teachers will lead the program which includes 8 disciplinary streams.
The Victorian Academy of Teaching and Leadership runs the program.’
Which of these lines helps you feel as if you’re being spoken to?
Active voice: You’ll get 10 minutes to write.
Passive voice: Participants will be given 10 minutes to write.
The active voice helps readers feel included by directly speaking to them.
The passive voice is like being the third wheel — feeling left out in a deep conversation between 2 others. It’s like being spoken about, rather than spoken to.
Be prepared to be challenged when you write in the active voice. Many organisations and people are used to writing in the passive voice. It takes time to change old ways of thinking.
As mentioned in the introduction, I’ve struggled with acronyms during my short stint in government so far. Though government writers are not the only ones guilty of it — almost every industry suffers from it!
It made me curious about whether it was just me. So, I’ve noticed how others react when I ask them what acronyms mean. I’ve discovered:
- long term employees have different interpretations of acronyms
- new employees feel confused and left out (like me!)
- many employees don’t remember them
- we’re expected to know them
- employees who don’t know the acronyms assume everyone else knows.
In their 113 guidelines for homepage usability, usability expert Nielson Norman Group recommends we:
Spell out abbreviations, initialisms, and acronyms. Immediately include their abbreviation in the first instance.
This is helpful for all users including people who use a screen reader.
- It’s ok to use abbreviations for widely used words, such as DVD
- Avoid using unexplained abbreviations in navigation links
The Australian government style manual makes a surprising yet worthwhile suggestion that goes one step further to help users:
Repeat the full term more than once if the user needs it.
‘Repeat the full term if the user needs it. If you use the shortened form only a few times in long-form content, consider writing out the full term more than once.
People could come across the shortened form without reading the text where it is first defined. For example, a user might click straight to a section that only includes the shortened form.’ — Acronyms and initialisms, Australian Government Style Manual
I get it. It’s easier to write the way we write and assume our readers will get it. It’s easier to assume our readers are educated, smart, and will get ‘common’ acronyms.
It’s far sexier to spend time on visuals than to switch complex words with simple words.
But the most gorgeously designed, most expensive website means nothing to your user if it’s too hard to read the damn thing.
That’s why the UK Parliament passed a Clearer Timeshare Act in 1993 to encourage plain language for the legal profession.
Plain language is law in the US, under the Plain Writing Act of 2010.
And ISO (International Organization for Standardization) is currently reviewing a new plain language standard: ISO 24495.
Plain language isn’t the norm. But it’s gaining momentum around the world.
We all need to get on board the plain language train… because who will ever complain about writing that’s too easy to understand?