Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Dumbing down or lifting up - writing in plain English respects your readers

It makes me really upset when I visit a government website and find it written in dense technical or bureaucratic language.

I can appreciate the desire of public servants to be precise and accurate in their choice of words, but often the language chosen is incomprehensible to people without two degrees and ten years experience in government.

I've heard about - and witnessed - instances when experienced writers or communication professionals have translated complex text into plain English and been told 'you're dumbing it down'.

No they're not. They're lifting the language up.

Writing in plain English is about respecting your readers - writing for them, not for yourself or your boss.

When writing complex multi-syllabic diatribes, the writer is not demonstrating their intellectual superiority or eloquent grasp of sophisticated phraseology.

The writer is showing they don't have the writing skill and experience to lift their language out of government-speak to a level used by society, by their audience - a level used every day to share and explain some of the most complicated concepts and thoughts imaginable.

The writer is hiding behind their words, using them to conceal a lack of appreciation and respect for their audience and a lack of understanding of their topic. They are revealing their limits and fears - and they are not getting their message across.

One of the core capabilities for the Australian Public Service is to 'Communicate with Influence'.

'Influence' doesn't mean using big words, it means using effective words - words that can overcome the gaps in communication between writers and readers to convey meaning and understanding.

So when writing your websites and developing your documents, think about the invisible people in the room - your readers. Is your choice of words appropriate for their experience and education?

Will they be uplifted by your simple and clear language or left feeling 'dumbed down', lost and frustrated by your turgid turns of phrase?


  1. You must be upset a lot!

  2. Thanks Craig. Agree wholeheartedly. Your readers might like to look at the DiVine website as an example of a AAA accessible site that embraces Plain English principles and yet is full of compelling reading.

  3. What message are you trying to give in this article by using words such as "diatribes" and "eloquent".