A column about writing in business
Short Words are Best
We've long suspected it, but now we have proof. Long words make you sound stupid and short words are best.
I'm fed up with people stealing my brain. Over here, in merrie olde England, it is illegal to misuse people's computers, for example, by infecting them with viruses. But for some reason I haven't figured out yet, it is not illegal for bad writers to corrupt my neurons, waste my mental capacity and steal my time with shoddy prose.
Me write stupid
Short words are best. Strunk and White made this argument a long time ago but now we have proof. The March 2006 issue of The Atlantic Monthly cited a piece of research that found that long words make text harder to read (well, duh!) but, surprisingly, make the author seem stupid to the reader. Since this is not an effect most authors wish for, it must come as a bit of a surprise.
The title of this masterpiece, "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly," says it all really. I love it when scientists have a sense of irony. Good for you Daniel M. Oppenheimer.
There are a number of statistical methods that you can use to measure readability, such as the Gunning-Fog index or the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. They are blind to style and flair and count only syllables, words and sentences. However, they can be useful antidotes to wordiness.
What Oppenheimer did was to get seventy-one Stanford undergraduates to evaluate different writing samples. He created a "highly complex" version of each original text by replacing each noun, verb and adjective with its longest synonym.
People often employ this kind of writing when they want to sound knowledgeable and important or because they think writing like they speak will make them sound lightweight.
Thanks to Oppenheimer, we know that the opposite is, in fact, true. He says "one thing is certain, write as simply and plainly as possible and it's more likely you'll be thought of as intelligent."
Short sentences work better online
It's not just short words. Short sentences are pretty nifty too, especially online. Jakob Neilsen, my guru, did some research into how people "read" web pages and it turns out that they don't. Instead, they flit around like a drunken butterfly reading a word here and a word there. Only 16 per cent of readers actually read web pages word by word. Why? Mainly because reading from a screen is 25 per cent slower than reading from paper and most people don't go to the web to read but to find information.
The good news is that writing for the web -- using lists, highlighted words, concise paragraphs and, most important, reducing the word count by half -- can increase online readability by up to 124 per cent. Choose shorter words at the same time and everyone will think you're a genius. Not a bad result for a little editing.