The Art of Writing Simply

August 29, 2013 Steve Maurer

I must confess that I’m a dog lover. My wife and I have a little fox terrier named Sugar Baby. She loves to play, yet is very protective of her humans. She thinks she’s “people” and certainly is a member of our family.

Unfortunately, she’s a lousy illustration for this idea of writing plainly, so let’s pretend I have a cat named Boots instead. And let’s imagine that a friend came over for a visit. Walking into the living room, she spots my cat. After sniffling and wrinkling up her nose for a while, she stammers:

“Whenever a domesticated feline comes into the adjacent proximity of my personal space, I experience what can only be described as an explosive outburst of depleted oxygen from my nasal cavities. Furthermore, the saline-solution lubrication ducts of my ocular receptor sockets begin to leak fluids that cascade down my facial topographical features.”

Say what?

Cats make me sneeze and cry!”

Oh, you’re allergic to Boots. Why didn’t you just say so!

Can you see the communication problem here?

All she needed to do was tell me about her allergy problem with my cat. Sounds simple enough. But she sure took the long, convoluted way of doing it. It sounded impressive, what with all those $10 words in there. I even had to grab a dictionary to figure some of them out. And I wrote it!

If she had simply told me that she was allergic to poor old Boots:

  • I would have understood her situation quickly and more easily,
  • the cat would have been put outside immediately, and
  • I wouldn’t have run out of facial tissues!

When you understand something easily, your response is much faster. That’s certainly the case with content marketing. Unfortunately, I’ve read a lot of content that is similar to my imaginary friend’s first comment about my cat. In fact, writing that is too complex – and thus very hard to read – is one of my pet peeves.

(No pun intended.)

Share your knowledge, don’t show off your intellect

What do I mean? Intellect is knowing all the technical aspects of your topic and all the impressive-sounding words that go with it.

Knowledge is knowing how to explain it so that your readers – all of them – can understand and believe it. And that’s a big difference. No, that’s a huge difference.

Let me give you an example.

The seamstress and the copywriter

My wife, Mary, is an excellent seamstress. She makes things like quilts, prom dresses and even dog vests. And she can mend stuff like broken zippers, torn pockets and worn-out jeans. She makes pretty good money doing that and I become mesmerized watching her ply her trade.

Sooner or later, though, I’ll do the dumb thing and ask her what she’s doing. I should know better, but I do it anyway.  She’ll launch into a technical explanation that zings right over this copywriting genius’ head. My mind goes numb just trying to keep up.

Then she’ll glance up and see my dumbfounded look. She realizes that I’m “lost in space” and she’ll start using words that I can understand, bringing me back down to earth.

It’s not that her explanations were wrong; just wrong for me. Her sewing friends would have understood without any problem. But I didn’t have a clue what she said and right then, I was her audience.

That should speak volumes to you.

Write in simple language

You never know who’s reading your content. Take tech writing for instance. Your reader might be a fellow geek or tech expert. But it might be the CFO who doesn’t understand any of the terminology or concepts.

So you need to write your content with both ends of the spectrum in mind.

Technical terminology and jargon are two of the most detrimental things you can include in your content marketing article. Sometimes they can’t be avoided. If that’s the case, at least explain them in layman’s terms so that everyone understands. But if they can be banished altogether, do so.

I’ve coined a word – jargonaut – to explain this problem to my clients. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines juggernaut as:

“A massive inexorable force or object that advances irresistibly and crushes whatever is in its path.”

Ouch, that’s got to hurt! And that’s exactly what your jargonaut and technical terminology will do to all but your techiest readers.

Jargon really does nothing to promote your expertise on the subject. Nor does writing in complex sentences and elongated paragraphs make your writing more credible.

I know this because I used to write that way too.

Checking my writer’s ego at the door

When I first started writing – a very, very long time ago it seems – I used sentences that had to be read in two, if not three breaths. My paragraphs were lengthy and heavy enough to be used as paperweights.

Not the case these days.

In my youth, I craved the accolades and acknowledgment of my literary peers.  However, quite a few years back I discovered something better than praise: results.

Results, my friend, pay much better.

Simple writing doth give birth to understanding and believability. Understanding and believability leadeth unto results, both abundant and profitable.

Indeed!

Note that I said simple, not simplistic, writing. Now, I want you to be totally honest with me. You won’t hurt my feelings. Did you feel like I was talking down to you, as if writing to a child? Or,

Did you find something useful? Maybe you had one or two of those “Aha” moments when clarity struck like a lightning bolt. Now here’s something interesting. I ran this article through the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Statistics tool:

The score tallied at a little over the 6th grade reading level. Are you surprised? You really need to think about that for a minute.

Many highly successful content marketers and ad agencies, like Agora Publishing and Boardroom, use the F-K Readability tool to tweak their content and copy. Agora, for instance, requires their copy be written between the 7th and 8th grade level. Why? Because writing that’s easy to read is more easily understood and more believable.

And writing that’s understood and believed gets better results.

Praise or results? It’s your call …

I’ve laid out my proposition: Simple writing is easier to read and believe, and it brings better results. It’s up to you to decide what to do with it. If you want the praise and acknowledgment of your own literary peers, write content that is beautifully complex and highly technical.

But, if you want results . . .

About the Author

Steve Maurer, Maurer Copywriting is a freelance copy and content writer in Fayetteville, Arkansas. His tagline at Maurer Copywriting , Professional Freelance Business Writing – Plain and Simple, explains both his target audience and his writing philosophy. You can meet him on LinkedIn or call him at 479-304-1086.

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