Why clear writing works better for all readers

Conventional wisdom is that clear writing only matters when you’re writing for the general public, or people with less formal education.  Health awareness campaigns for teenagers.  Supermarket catalogues. Warning signs at the edges of cliffs.

We assume that more educated readers have learnt to understand complex texts, so they won’t mind reading convoluted sentences packed with jargon. Policy papers.  Law textbooks. Research reports.

In fact, the opposite is true.

Educated readers prefer clear writing

Recent research shows that the more educated a reader, the more they will prefer a concise, clear document over the wordy alternative. For this research, Christopher Trudeau distributed an online questionnaire examining people’s attitudes to how lawyers communicate with their clients. The survey included two version of the same document: one in ‘legal speak’, and one in plain English. The results were surprising:

  • 76.5% of responders with less than a bachelor’s degree preferred the plain version
  • 82.0% of responders with masters or doctoral degrees preferred the plain version.

Why this difference?

A major factor is that clearer documents make it easier to complete tasks. In another study, Katherine Summers and Michael Summers measured the usability of online medical information.  They tested two versions of web content – a dense one, and a clearly written one. They measured how long it took participants to complete tasks using this content.

Clear writing helped both groups, but again the improvement was largest for more educated readers.

  • Lower-literacy readers completed tasks 134% quicker.
  • Higher-literacy readers completed tasks 182% quicker.

Dense content wastes people’s time

It makes sense that more educated readers prefer clear writing. They often work in white-collar jobs, where they spend most of their day processing text: emails, reports and project plans. Documents that take longer to read and understand will chew up more of their day: ‘do I have to stay back late to wade through this?’

It’s widely acknowledged that clear writing is vital for reaching and empowering people from disadvantaged backgrounds  – even if the practice doesn’t always match the rhetoric. But what these two studies show us is that we can’t let ourselves off the hook when we’re writing for more educated audiences.

If we write clear, concise text for all audiences, then everyone wins.

Read on…

The Public Speaks: An Empirical Study of Legal Communication, by Christopher Trudeau.

Reading and Navigational Strategies of Web Users with Lower Literacy Skills, Katherine Summers and Michael Summers

Writing at work, Neil James.  The classic Plain English reference.

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