Well-meaning advice to simplify your writing is missing the point

Many writers make money from blog articles explaining how other writers should simplify their writing. Well-meant advice, sometimes useful, but often missing the point. At times, it's just wrong.

Due to the availability of several apps, it appears we must now avoid adjectives and adverbs and never use a complex word where a simpler alternative exists. We can't use long sentences, or Google will disapprove, and we must avoid passive voice at all costs. We also must not use words that an eighth-grader would struggle to understand. For those of us raised in the English schooling system, that's an age of 13 to 14 years.

Oh yes, compound sentences are frowned upon, industry jargon discouraged, and always be sure to use Anglo-Saxon words over those of Latin origin.

The prescience of Orwell

I recently reread George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984 and rediscovered the invented language of Newspeak used by the country's inhabitants. It struck me that there are parallels to the current fetish for language simplification. In Orwell's novel, oversimplifying and limiting vocabulary was a means to prevent complex thinking and ensure alignment with the totalitarian government's doctrine. Now, I don't mean to suggest the message of the well-intended is some dark conspiracy, but won't the outcome be similar?

The English language is nuanced, three-dimensional, and complex. It conveys comprehension, emotion, and a sense of rhythm when expressed well, and it worries me that words will disappear due to a fad.

Inverted snobbery, perhaps?

Take a simple example. Most articles you read on simplifying your writing will tell you to eschew 'utilise' for 'use.' Yet the two words have different meanings. A nuanced difference, admittedly, but different nonetheless. Use means "to put something to a particular use", while utilise means "to use something in an effective way". The addition of effectiveness is the differentiator. However, I've read articles where the writer has scorned those daring to add depth and nuance by using utilise, accusing them of trying to appear high-brow or showing off.

Now I'm not being deliberately obtuse for dramatic (or grammatic) effect. I understand that blogging is a numbers game, where, generally, the more readers you get, the greater your revenue. I also understand that where you can improve readability and comprehension through simplification, you should. Yet the message seldom considers context and reader education. I firmly believe there is a need for writing in this world that deals with complex topics.

Horses for courses

I come from an engineering background and have worked for many decades at a senior level within the corporate world. When I write a complex business plan or proposal, a technical description for engineers, a capability statement, or a whitepaper, I do so in the knowledge of the intended reader. I understand their intellect, jargon, and their expected outcomes. Dumbing down the text to grade eight to meet the strident demands of offended observers serves no purpose other than to create anodyne text that fails to meet the client's intent.

So we built an echo chamber...

Based on this, my business partner and I founded Intelligent Content. Not out of some Quixotic crusade to save the English language, but because we quickly realised that others feel like us. The more we began to write, the more we had clients seeking technical and business writing for adults. We still write blog posts and sometimes even manage to get down to grade eight, but isn't the world a richer, more colourful place when we explore the four corners of the English language?

Intelligent Content (intelligentcontent.org) is a professional content agency that writes technical and business content. We make complex technical engineering and business concepts understandable, conveying the information in a vocabulary appropriate for a sophisticated and professional audience.

David spent 20 years in aviation maintenance before gaining an MBA and spending another 20 years recovering failing businesses and mega-projects. He has held several Director roles and worked at the Board level. Now based in the UK, he has lived and worked in six countries. A native English speaker, David co-founded Intelligent Content in 2019, working full-time in the business with his partner and associates.

Collect this post to permanently own it.
Intelligent Content logo
Subscribe to Intelligent Content and never miss a post.
  • Loading comments...