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Simple English on the Web

  |  February 21, 2002   |  Comments

Our age is cursed with complexity. We yearn for simplicity. Our language has been invaded by an unruly mob of new words and terms. There has never been a greater need to write clear, simple English.

"After removing client-sensitive information, we develop 'knowledge objects' by pulling key pieces of knowledge such as interview guides, work schedules, benchmark data, and market segmentation analyses out of documents and storing them in the electronic repository for people to use."

The above is a statement by a manager at a large consulting firm. It sounds very impressive on the surface. However, just what is a "knowledge object"? What exactly is an "electronic repository"? Could a knowledge object be some sort of fancy gadget that, through extraordinary feats of rocket engineering and design, Nobel-prize-winning scientists have created whereby text and images can be stored and viewed? Or could this knowledge object in fact be that thing we used to call a document back in the good old days? Could an electronic repository in fact be an intranet?

The need to over-complicate language must be deep and compelling. Perhaps it harks back to our tribal roots and the need to have a language or slang only an elite few understand. Or perhaps it's because, as someone once stated, "in the mystery lies the margin."

To put it another way: "If you can't dazzle them with diamonds, baffle them with bullshit." The Web is sinking in it. People aren't impressed. There's an urgent need to get back to basics. There's an urgent need for those who write to do so in plain English, German, French, Japanese, Spanish...

Writing is communicating. If your reader requires a slang dictionary to wade through your content, chances are you won't have many readers. Someone recently sent me a quote by Albert Camus, the great French writer. He stated: "Those who write clearly have readers, those who write obscurely have commentators."

How do you know amateur writing? It's verbose. It uses lots of complicated words. It takes five pages to say what can be said in one. The irony of simple writing is that it's very hard to do. Complexity is often a mask behind which the writer who doesn't quite understand what he is writing about hides.

George Orwell wrote, "If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out." The Web is the world of the impatient reader. People scan their way across text, looking for meaning, for relevance.

What do you get when you take Orwell's rule to its extreme? Classification (taxonomy). On the Web, we have learned to read by classification. Is it in this section of the site or that one?

Unlimited choice scares people. (Practically nobody goes beyond the second page of search results.) Complex language confuses them. Long, convoluted documents turn them off.

Time is our scarcest resource. The less time we have, the more our attention span contracts. Write simply. Keep headings, summaries, sentences, paragraphs, and documents short. Get to the point. Then -- stop.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gerry McGovern Gerry McGovern is a Web consultant and author. His most recent books are Content Critical and The Web Content Style Guide, published by Financial Times Prentice Hall.

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