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In (grudging) defense of simplicity

At a recent conference called Confab Central, which is oriented toward content strategy, I watched a presentation by a woman named Becky Spurbeck, who talked about simplifying writing. She covered things like reading score, and pointed out that the average American reads at about the 7th-grade level. She correctly argued that, in web writing, you should never use a fancy word when a simple word will do.

My takeaway from all this, as written in the Evernote file, read, “What’s worse—the rare individual who feels you’re talking down to them or the multitudes who probably won’t understand you?”

That’s an interesting question to me as a writer. I love words. I especially love English, because there is a perfectly correct word for just about every situation. I like knowing what that word is. I’ve even modified my point in order to use a word a really want to use, like “insouciance” or “braggadocio” or “effluvium.” If words were musical notes, finding the right word is like coming up with a surprising and delightful chord in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable song.

But here’s the thing: No one knows those words, and the average American lexicon isn’t growing—it’s shrinking. If you don’t heavily favor the 1,000 most commonly used English words, you risk going over people’s heads. Ditto if you favor those words but use complex sentence constructions. For someone who has favored eloquence over simplicity for most of his life, that’s hard to make my peace with. But the crucial difference here is writing for the web vs. writing books or journalistic pieces. The web is not really a place for writing; it’s a place for information. Information that’s ambiguous or hard to comprehend is useless.

The web is not really a place for writing; it’s a place for information.

A couple summers ago, I went to the US Open Golf Championship in Washington state. A plane flying overhead towed a giant banner with the Geico gecko on it, and the only copy said, “Save Money.” That was it. Talk about a key message boiled down to its essence. If I visit www.geico.com, that theme of simplicity continues. It is very, very stripped down. Almost no block of text contains more than 3 sentences.

But I don’t see this as simplicity for its own sake; I see it as being deeply respectful of the audience. Geico knows I’m not coming to their website to spend time there. If anything, I’m coming there to save time. They know there’s a good chance I’m on the side of a road somewhere, trying to verify my coverage while my Corolla lays on its roof in a nearby ditch. They know I don’t care what their mission statement is. In other words, their content is user-centric.

I don’t have to give up on finding the perfect word. I will write things that are either just for me, or for the relative handful of people who will appreciate the internal rhythms of the language I chose. I will write passages that require a couple passes to appreciate, and I will use some words that will have people reaching for the dictionary. I just won’t do it writing for the web, and that’s okay. Writers write. Hopefully they’re read, but not necessarily. Web content exists only to be read and comprehended, and therefore it is different. There is no communication without comprehension.

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