How to not let your writing get in the way of your message

My boss told me to write something on the third-grade level yesterday. Curious what level I normally write on, I found this readability index tool.

Depending on whose algorithm you use, I typically write on the 5th-7th grade level.

I was trained to write on the 6th grade level–most daily newspapers target that grade level–so after all these years, I’m pretty much on target. I write on complex enough subject matter that I don’t need my readers to be stumbling over sentence structure and words of the day to figure out what I’m talking about.

That’s my beef with some security magazines. They have useful information, but I struggle so much to read the text that I find it hard to figure out what they’re talking about. The stuff would be hard to read and understand if they were talking about how to change a light bulb, but when you add the complexity of the subject matter, I need a nap by the time I’m done. It’s not complex sentence structure and use of uncommon words that make you sound smart–your subject matter does.

Engineers can be outstanding writers if they use the right mindset. A good engineer doesn’t add any extra complexity to a machine, because extra complexity just adds parts that can break, and make the machine harder to maintain. That’s exactly the mindset a good writer needs.

Readability indices are a good tool. Use them.

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3 thoughts on “How to not let your writing get in the way of your message

  • May 31, 2012 at 8:54 am

    “Eschew obfuscation,” as my high school teacher used to say…

  • May 31, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Utilising “utilise” is silly when “use” will serve.

    Problem is, people have been contaminated by the expectation academics have of academic writing. They penalise clear simple writing and one-syllable words. You don’t get no respect (and respect is important in academic papers and theses) unless you’re stupidly loquacious and circumlocutious. If there’s a choice between a clear simple one-syllable word and an obscure four-syllable word, choosing simple gets you penalised. A lot of people have trouble breaking free of the habits those expectations have instilled in them, when they need to write in clear English which will be readily understood by the general public.

    • May 31, 2012 at 6:20 pm

      I ran into that problem in college. I guess the difference between me and many of my peers was that if I got a B in an English class, it wasn’t the end of the world for me. And I’d argue with the English professors/instructors. It helped that I had the oldest and one of the most prestigious journalism schools in the world backing me up in the argument.

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