Use Fewer Words

Not long ago I gave a talk at Design Swansea (thank you!) called Plain Words. My main point was that you should use the simplest, most widely understood language you can to get a message across. I showed a few pompous signs I've found over the years, the kind that starts with "Polite Notice" and has "Would patrons kindly refrain from…" and makes you immediately want to do what the sign is telling you not to, just because it's so rude.

Archaic language is a problem too: London Underground is fond of using alight where exit might be better; I was near a group of Spanish tourists hearing this for the first time and (while they understood the meaning) they found it quite funny to suggest people catch fire at South Kensington to visit the British Museum. 'Alight' isn't wrong but it's not right either.

It's not dumbing down, instead it's not wasting people's time and effort figuring out what you mean. GOV.uk has some good guidelines (of course), and this is an interesting write-up on the kind of language scientists prefer to use (as an example of definitely not dumbing down).

So there's that, all well and good.

And here I have a bit of a whinge. There's this style of writing I call Great American Novel Journalism where you wonder if the writer is being paid by the word.

This is what it's like. This is not an extract, mind. I don't want to single anyone out, but to give you the idea:

Scientific breakthrough that could herald a cancer cure

The elderly scientist drove her 1989 Nissan Sentra northward along I5, the brilliant Californian sunshine glinting in her sparkling blue eyes. The recent rains, newsworthy in the extreme and the subject of front page articles and top stories for a month, had abated to leave a sparkling fresh appearance to the towns and cities south of San Francisco. Recently assured of tenure, she was running early in a way that had become customary—something she was renowned for in her department. But today provided added impetus to her natural punctuality, honed over many years first as a military brat thrust into the hot-house school system of South Korea and later at the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris, France. Today she was headed to present findings that would cause shockwaves through the global scientific community and I bet you wish this article would get to the point don't you?"

And on, and on, and on. Boring. I'm not on about long-form writing in general, just this gas-baggery style. Wired, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, New York Times all do it, and there's plenty more who do too; The Guardian newspaper started getting this stuff when it expanded into the US.

I could have called the style Sparkling Blue Eyes because of how often descriptions like that pop up. Seriously, get over it.

And it took me over 400 words to just say get to the point.

Irony, thy name is…