Write Smart, Write Simple

Does the name Jethro Bodine ring a bell? No, he’s not the sole surviving dot-com mogul of the 1990s. He’s the character from “The Beverly Hillbillies” who had a hankering for possum stew and was forever bragging about his sixth-grade education.

Now I’m sure even those who were born decades after me — and I know that’s about 98 percent of ClickZ readers — have, at one time or another, channel surfed upon this classic television show, so I make no apologies for referencing material more than 30 years old. Instead, I want to point out ol’ Jethro’s pride in his near attainment of a junior-high-school degree.

And although Jethro’s education level seemed silly in the 1960s, here’s a sobering fact for today: The average reading level in the United States is presently eighth to ninth grade. What’s more, some experts recommend that critical information for daily living — such as healthcare content — be scaled back to a sixth-grade level.

Erin Murphy and Ann Bagnell address the issue of writing at this level in the November issue of “eHealthcare Strategy & Trends” (“How Can We Boost Our Site’s Accessibility?”). It’s a great piece that makes no potentially inappropriate references to Jethro Bodine (like above). Instead, the authors provide very useful information on how to keep your site simple in presentation and free of the gobbledygook that is difficult to process at any level.

For example, Murphy and Bagnell suggest we consider the Flesch Reading Ease/Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level statistics that are readily available to all Microsoft Word users. (In case you’ve forgotten, it’s under the Tools menu. Click “Options” and then select the Spelling & Grammar tab. Check the boxes for “Check grammar with spelling” and “Show readability statistics” and click “OK.” The readability score will appear when you complete your next spelling and grammar check.)

Murphy and Bagnell also cite the National Institutes of Health recommendations for plain language:

  • Use language appropriate for your reader.
  • Include only necessary details.
  • Use the active voice.
  • Use personal pronouns, such as “we” and “you.”
  • Use short sentences and paragraphs.
  • Use tables, lists, and other easy-to-understand design features.

Amen! These are all great suggestions, although I hope that most of you already intuitively follow these rules for your sites.

But I want to challenge you a little bit more. Can you be smart as well as easy to read? Can you be both informative and provocative? Can you stimulate peoples’ minds without writing the Web equivalent of “Finnegan’s Wake”?

Of course you can. So, without many apologies and with a certain amount of arrogance, I suggest “Susan’s rules for plain language that isn’t as dry as a three-day-old loaf of nine-grain”:

  • Laugh with your audience whenever possible. Granted, in many situations solemnity is critical, but find those important opportunities when you can interject something amusing. Your readers will appreciate the effort.
  • Write with personality. You have one. Really, I’m sure you do. Let it shine.
  • Loosen up at the keyboard. Some writing is so stiff, it seems the author must have written the piece in a neck brace. Relax, even if your first draft is heavy on the stream of consciousness. You can clean up your writing in drafts 2 through 11, but most of the real gems are found in your initial effort.
  • Use cultural references that are known to your primary audience. Mr. Bodine above is a great example. Granted, you may not hit the mark every time, but it’s another way of connecting with most of your readers.
  • Eschew all corporate- and IT-speak. Synergies, portabilities, CRM, and ERP are out. Unless you can define these terms with reasonable clarity, they will fog your writing.
  • Keep it simple, but not for the simpleton. Reading levels have declined for a number of reasons, including the fact that English is a second language for many. Your challenge is to keep the language straightforward but still involve the reader. So, don’t diminish the ideas — just the number of words it takes to communicate them.

I know you’re all up to the challenge. In fact, I’ll wager you can cook up some content just as tasty as Granny’s possum stew!

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