Should you be simplifying your writing?13 May 2016
Virtually every business writing and communications training will reinforce the idea to keep your text concise and precise. For good business writing is not poetry, it gets to the point fast and leaves no question about what it trying to be said.
“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.”
– Angela Carter
Is language power, or is sharing power?
Historically, however, language has been used to distinguish between class and status. Ancient playwright Aristophanes famously said, “High thoughts must have high language.” But nowadays, we are more likely to think that complex thoughts should be able to be shared with everyone.
Simple wording does not make your ideas any less powerful. It ensures that you know what you are saying, and that the reader will interpret it how you intended. Communication doesn’t end once you have written something down. It ends once the reader correctly interprets what you wrote.
Aristophanes’ notion was questioned by the writings of Angela Carter in 1983. She suggests that language can be used to both restrict knowledge or to make it available. Born from this idea is the plain English movement is – a social campaign to free language, knowledge, and culture.
The plain English movement
In the late ’70s and ’80s, policy makers and activists led the plain English movement in the United States to convert official documents, such as insurance, legal and financial information, into layman’s terms. According to a 1983 research paper by Carl Felsenfeld, some of the policies required that advanced business writing be written clearly and coherently, with common and everyday words used wherever possible to make these documents accessible to the wider public.
Felsenfeld explained how plain English was likely part of a wider movement to protect consumers, because you should be able to read and understand the fine print, not be intimidated by it.
Over forty years on, even law professor Mark Cooney from the University of Michigan proclaimed that plain English is now “just good writing”.
Improving your business writing
But often when we write, especially at speed, it is difficult to communicate ideas clearly and effectively. So what is the solution?
In a recent study, Leo Vijayasarathy and colleagues found that using software that points out ambiguous phrases, wordiness and incorrect usage while writing, reduces 70 per cent of these occurrences, effectively making speed writing clearer and more concise. So just by remembering to be critical of your words while you are writing could actually improve your style.
If you need some more strategies to keep your business writing concise and precise, check out the professional development courses available at the Institute for Communication Management and Leadership.