Language and the role of the web writer

Some web writers object to using plain language, saying their role is to educate and expand users’ vocabulary. That’s a poor argument unless you’re developing learning materials, or working an encyclopedia website. Web content needs to communicate clearly, using a style and form appropriate for the web.

In a recent writing workshop, we were discussing making content more readable. One technique is to use common, everyday words—’agree’ rather than ‘concur’, ‘keep’ rather than ‘retain’—because they’re more likely to be easily understood.

Should we use words that challenge readers?

One participant said she was ‘concerned about this plain language thing’. She felt that the increasing use of the Internet and text messaging was leading to a loss of vocabulary, and web writers would contribute to this unless they used words that challenged readers.

While I share her concern, improving literacy is not a web writer’s job.   Expanding readers’ vocabularies is a task for the education system, teachers and parents. In fact, if web writers use words that challenge users, we’re probably not doing our job.

Communication is the writer’s main goal

The main goal of online content is to communicate. If web writers have an educative role to play it is a specific one—to educate users in the subject matter at hand. To do that, we must ensure we choose words that our users understand, present information they need and want to know, and do so in a way that works well for on-screen reading.

It’s not our role to teach language skills. It is not our job to challenge the reading skills of our users by using words unfamiliar to them.

Plain language is not dumbing the language down

The sentiment that often motivates comments like the one above is the belief that writing in plain language is dumbing content down. The truth—supported by a weight of evidence—is that plain language is:

  • Faster to read because the text is almost always much shorter
  • Easier to understand because unnecessary complexity is removed from the text
  • Preferred by a wide range of readers, including those who are highly educated and used to reading complex material (including lawyers, believe it or not)!

Joe Kimble’s ‘Writing for dollars, writing to please’ (PDF) provides a great summary of the evidence that plain language works. When it comes to reading information,  rather than reading for pleasure, no one wants to read anything that is longer or harder to understand than it should be.

Choosing words is important, but only part of plain language

You might think plain language is about using simple words, and what I’ve said so far might reinforce that view. However plain language is about more than the choice of words. It is also concerned with structure, layout and length of content.

Choice of words is an important consideration though. The key is to choose words that are appropriate for the reader. Unnecessarily long or arcane words are out unless they are technical terms that the reader will be expecting to see or will be searching for.

Writing in plain language is hard work

I think the ‘dumbing down’ sentiment carries an assumption that plain language is only for writers who lack sophistication or talent. But it’s far easier for writers to trot out pages and pages of turgid writing. The web is full of it. It is much harder to turn this into something that is clear and concise, informative and precise. Ask any writer who has tried. (But don’t let me put you off. It does get easier with practise!)

Further reading