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Simplified language is not stupid


Simplified language is not stupid

Being understandable is a good thing, even if your academic supervisors criticise you for it.

When I was doing my honours project in Computer Science, I was regularly criticised for making my papers and literature reviews too readable, too understandable.

As if being understood is a bad thing!

I was told that I could ‘get away with it’ when in honours, but it would absolutely be forbidden for me to write that way if I had continued into a PhD.

Personally, I don’t see the point of deliberately making something hard to understand!

Of course, there are some areas where the vocabulary is more difficult – medical, scientific or technical English do need to use specialised terms.

Legal ‘language’ around the world, is one of the worst areas for obfuscating unnecessarily. 🙂

Simpler language usually does not lose information

Why can’t we rewrite it to be simpler and still contain all the information in the complex phrase?

This doesn’t mean that our readers are stupid, but instead, that we value their time and attention.

“The study group participants indicated via interrogation and pill count, significantly decreased compliance because of the A. prevalence of side effects, and B. the lack of communication of the longer-term beneficial effects.”

“The study group members had a large number of side effects and did not know about the long-term benefits. They either stopped taking the medication or took less than prescribed.”

Flesh-Kincaid Readability Tests

There are two systems to measure how easy something is to read – the Flesh Reading Ease, and the Flesh-Kincaid Grade level.

The Flesh Reading Ease is a truly funky metric for measuring the complexity of your writing. And the Flesh-Kincaid converts that to a US-school grade level to make it easy on teachers and parents.

Of course I had to try out various styles of my writing to see where I fell on the scale of 0 (extremely difficult to read) to 100 (very easy to read).

Flesh Reading Ease levels

  • 0-30 – understood by university graduates
  • 60-70 – understood by 13-15 year old students
  • 90-100 – understood by 11 year old students

This metric is based on the number of syllables in each word and the average sentence length. In some fields that use extraordinarily long technical terminology, most writing would have low Flesh Reading Ease scores (medical, legal, scientific, etc.)

A range of my writing and my Flesh readability scores

  • 75: Normal, everyday writing, about non-medical topics.
  • 65: When I worked as a technical writer, I made complex instructional and descriptive topics easy to understand.
  • 50: Some older articles about medical topics. My more recent medical articles are around 60.
  • 40: My honours literature review and project proposal. These were considered too easy to read.
  • 25: My academic paper about the Epistemology of Climate Change Simulation after several re-writes to match the style of the papers I was reviewing, successfully meeting the request of the lecturer!

This readability metric is built into Microsoft Word and many other word processors. Or you can paste your writing into the readability-score.com online tool.

Do have a look at some of your writing – you might be surprised!

Did you know …?
Government departments sometime require documents for the public to have a minimum Flesh Reading Ease score, making them more easily understood.

It’s a shame that policy documents aren’t written in the same way!

What’s your Flesh score?

What styles or areas do you write in, and what are your scores?

Do you think that the language used by some professions, like lawyers, should be easy to understand?