How to make life easier for your readers
Last year I wrote a blog about words, suggesting how the worlds of innovation, business and entrepreneurship could avoid lazy jargon and clichés. I continue to receive a flow of reports, books or emails containing horrible abuses of language and thought it was time for another comment, partly prompted by a recent report that included the phrases ‘building a dense participatory ecology at scale…’, ‘two levels of participation typography are needed for the ecology to work’, and ‘resilience as an integrative construct’. I read these several times and still don’t know what they mean, though I can roughly guess. I’m pretty sure that language like this doesn’t encourage clear thinking. So here are a few suggestions on how to make life easier for readers, and a list of words best avoided or at least used sparingly.
A good starting point, not available to any past generations, is to test your writing with an online tool. An excellent option is read-able.com which brings together a range of methods for analysing the readability of a text. On the Flesch-Kincaid 'reading ease' measure, which you'll find there, it's good to aim for 60 and above unless you're targeting a very specialist audience. Higher scores make it far more likely you'll actually be read, even by specialists. Many people (certainly including me) write at too difficult a level.
This piece by Stephen Pinker provides excellent steers about how to write (and is quicker to read than the whole book), including this one: 'the stance that our best essayists and writers implicitly adopt ...is a combination of vision and conversation. When you write you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that's interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.'
Always try to explain why what you're saying is interesting or important. This almost certainly feels obvious to you. But it won't be obvious to your reader, who will want to know why and also, possibly, ‘so what?’ A great deal of otherwise interesting writing jumps these vital steps. Researchers particularly struggle, because they become so caught up with what, to them, is the intrinsic fascination of their work.
It’s similarly helpful to remind your readers of the context and background for what you’re about to say. What larger story is this part of? Again this will seem boringly obvious to you, but not to your reader who has a thousand other things on their mind.
Good writing uses clear words. The following list (which colleagues at Nesta have contributed to) partly reflects my own taste. But it also applies a general test - if you wouldn’t use a word in everyday conversation, it’s probably best avoided. Some specialist words don’t have synonyms, and are useful shorthand, but they’re best kept for specialist audiences. Here, then, are a few words which I think should be used sparingly, if at all:
I’m sure many will disagree about some of the words on this list; my main plea is to think first before casually using overused words.
Finally, it can be useful to translate jargon into very plain English. Last year we commissioned ComRes to look at public attitudes to innovation. The report has important implications for how science, technology and innovation are communicated, and for the politics of how they are done - the lessons of which are not widely appreciated. A small part of the research looked at words used around innovation and suggested substitutions that would make more sense to a general audience:
Wonk speak / plain English
innovation / new ideas, new ways of doing things
invest[ment] / support
consumer technology / gadgets
evidence based / tried and tested
incremental innovation / better [+ noun] (e.g. better homes, better technology)
economic growth / jobs, careers, houses
recession / cost of living, lack of jobs
the long term / your children and grandchildren