Sam Williams | January 22, 2020
We often come across the view that ‘smart’ writing must be complex writing, especially in technical fields. People don’t want to use plain language because they think it’ll ‘dumb down’ their content.
It’s easy to see why you’d think complex language makes you sound smarter. You want to seem authoritative, capable, credible, and professional.
But while complex language might be all those things to you, it’s worth asking yourself what your readers will think. If they find your writing difficult to understand, they might think you’re intimidating, unhelpful, untrustworthy, and uncaring.
Is your perception of yourself more important than your readers’ perception of you?
Research has debunked the idea that complex language makes you sound smarter. Psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton University studied the effect of unnecessarily complex language on the reader’s impression of the writer.
Oppenheimer found that plain language made the best impression:
‘Anything that makes a text hard to read and understand, such as unnecessarily long words or complicated fonts, will lower readers’ evaluations of the text and its author … One thing seems certain: write as simply and plainly as possible and it’s more likely you’ll be thought of as intelligent.’
Complex language might put off everyday people, but surely experts find long sentences and big words impressive? Research shows otherwise.
Experts may be able to understand complex language, but it still takes them more time to read and makes it harder to find what they’re looking for. In a 2017 study, The Nielsen Norman Group found that ‘highly educated online readers crave succinct information that is easy to scan’.
Plain language will help experts read and understand your writing more quickly. You’ll be saving their valuable time, and they’ll thank you for it.
Using plain language means you’re communicating clearly, not ‘dumbing down’ your writing.
Think about who you’re writing to, and why you’re writing to them. You’re not writing to show off how many long words you know. You have ideas you want your readers to accept. Unnecessarily complex writing gets in the way of this purpose. Your readers will think less of you because you’re wasting their time and making yourself difficult to understand.
If your ideas are smart, communicate them clearly so they can speak for themselves.
Sign up for Plain Language Foundations at Write Online to learn the basics of plain language and start making your writing sound smarter.
Your tone can also affect how your audience perceives you.