WEB REVIEW: Save the long words for Scrabble

Organization celebrates business writers who keep it simple.

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Jim Cota

An awards ceremony was recently held at the National Press Club, but you probably missed it. It wasn’t heralding the latest movie, song or television show. It was, instead, focused on something far more important and often overlooked: plain writing.

For some time now, I’ve encouraged our clients, friends–-and even my kids–-to toss aside tired phrases and words that obscure meaning in favor of clear, concise language. It’s long been known that using long words makes text harder to read (obviously), but there have been research studies that suggest using them makes the author seem stupid to the reader. Which is really sad, considering that most people pepper their prose with long words in an effort to sound smarter.

The tongue-in-cheek title of the report was “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.” Plug that into a search engine and you’ll be able to find it to download.

Its lessons shouldn’t be a big surprise. Regardless of what you’re writing, whether it’s a sales letter, blog post, company history, or proposal, the golden rule of clear communication should be communicating clearly.

It was with this thought in mind that Annetta Cheek started the Center for Plain Language, whose goal is to “get government and businesses to communicate more clearly with citizens and customers.”

To help with this effort, the center has four main goals to support plain writing. It advocates for people to use, learn and teach plain language; it gives people information and tools to improve their use of plain language; it does and shares research that identifies best practices; and it coordinates activities like its annual symposium and awards program to help people know more about and use plain language.

Its website, www.centerforplainlanguage.org, is the central clearing house for all this information. There you can find several resources for improving your writing skills, including key articles that describe the benefits of plain language, outline a plan for integrating it into your organization, and—my favorite—“The 10 commandments of simplification.”

At the beginning of this column, I mentioned an awards ceremony. The center annually presents the ClearMark (for the best in communication) and WonderMark (for the worst—so named because the judges were often left wondering what the writers were thinking). Entries for the awards are nominated by the public and judged by a panel of experts. After a recent interview on National Public Radio, the site posted several examples of entries in the contest. You can see them on the NPR website: http://tinyurl.com/27vuxtt. 

But I should warn you, reading through some of these can be tedious. Take this small example from the National Parks Service: “When the process of freeing a stuck vehicle that has been stuck results in ruts or holes, the operator will fill the rut or hole created by such activity before removing the vehicle from the immediate area.” (In other words, if you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, fill it.)

Even worse is Department of Homeland Security’s “I-94W Nonimmigrant Visa Waiver Arrival/Departure Record Instructions.”

Called “confusing, arcane, bureaucratic, bizarre and downright offensive” by the nominator, this small green form included statements like, “An agency may not conduct or sponsor an information collection and a person is not required to respond to this information unless it displays a current valid OMB control number.” Keep in mind that this form is intended to be completed by foreigners immediately upon entry into the country. They are instructed to “Type or print legibly...”

I can’t remember the last time I saw a bunch of tourists traveling with typewriters, let alone an English translation dictionary.•


Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.


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