Write to be understood

When writing formal communications, many people favour long or uncommon words, lengthy sentences and lots of detail – possibly in the belief it will make them sound more intelligent or ‘official’. But what effect does this have on the reader?

Here’s an example taken from a sign I spotted recently – note the use of ‘enacted’, ‘adhere’ and ‘utilise’:

“USE OF TOILETS. To help prevent problems with the system always adhere to the following: The cisterns have 2 types of flush, a “short flush” (enacted by pressing the handle down and releasing quickly) and a long flush (requiring the handle to be held down for 5 or 6 seconds). ALWAYS UTILISE THE LONG FLUSH”

Blimey. I think what they’re trying to say is, ‘please hold the handle down for 6 seconds when flushing’.

The problem with writing in the style of the example is that it forces the reader to work too hard. It’s tiring and tedious. And it comes across as pretty unfriendly.

I’m a big fan of writing in plain English. It’s not necessarily about using the shortest word possible; it’s about using the most familiar word, and cutting out the waffle. Writing is, after all, just a means of communicating information from your brain to another’s – the clearer your writing, the more effectively you’ll get your point across.