Lessons from a 2-Year-Old: Use Clear Words

Our two-year-old started saying, “Huh?” if she doesn’t understand what you are saying.  It is a keen reminder that she doesn’t have the depth of vocabulary we do. We reshape what we say in a hope she will understand us the second, or third, time.

As writers, we don’t have the luxury of immediate feedback—such as “Huh?”—from our readers. We have to anticipate ahead of time what the most effective words are. Too often, writers are burdened with the need to show how intelligent they are or they unconsciously bury themselves in industry jargon. They use a thesaurus to discover new words or cram every term they learned in business school into their brochure.

Princeton University researcher Daniel Oppenheimer studied clear writing. In his 2005 paper, comically named, Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly, he establishes why, “direct, declarative sentences with simple common words are usually best.”

He looks at one poll of 110 Stanford undergraduates, where 87% admit to using complicated language in essays to make it sound more valid or intelligent. The problem isn’t limited to one field of study over another. I suspect we are all guilty of doing this at least once—if not on a regular basis—in our writing. As Oppenheimer points out, large vocabularies are associated with intelligence, so we naturally gravitate towards using big words to make us sound smart.

However, the goal of writing is to tell your readers something.  They need to understand it, and the fact is that simpler writing is easier to process. We should embrace this. As fundraising expert Jeff Brooks notes, “Low grade level copy is not ‘talking down’ to educated readers or treating them like children. Think of it instead as a form of courtesy, like enunciating clearly when you talk. The most super-educated PhD. will appreciate and respond to copy that’s easy to read.”  Brooks also notes that no one is required to read your content, so you need to make it easy for them.

You shouldn’t write so that a two-year-old can understand you, but writing to a sixth-grade level is generally accepted as ideal. There are several tests to help guide you. While not perfect, they are widely recognized as worthwhile guides.  The most common is Flesch-Kincaid, which estimates the grade level of your writing. This site analyzes your text and gives you ratings in three different scales.

The bottom line is that writing clearly better communicates your message and, as Oppenheimer notes, “you’ll be more likely to be thought of as intelligent.” So, it is a win-win.

This post originally appeared on ADG Creative’s Brain Juice blog. 

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