Keep it simple, silly!

Usha Raman

This headline is a corrupted version of the popular rule – Keep it simple, stupid*. It is changed here because I did not want to run the risk of offending readers right from the first line! This is a basic rule of good writing that we tend to disregard in practice. So, in the composition classroom, the myths take over and lead us to create overweight, obtuse pieces of text that confuse the reader and tire our already overworked brains. We’ve seen the extreme results of this learned tendency to “obfuscation” in government documents, legal notices, application forms. Its critics call it “gobbledygook” – confusing, complicated phrases that don’t seem to mean anything. Most of us have puzzled over such texts and torn our hair in frustration as we struggled to deal with them. So why do we still subscribe to the idea that good writing is about big words, flowery sentences, and phrases that can’t be understood without referring to a dictionary? And worse still, why do we inflict the same expectations on our students?

Of course, there is room for complex language, and there are readers who delight in it. But that belongs in the realm of literature, where the reader may take pleasure in mulling over the words and sentences and puzzling over different interpretations. What we are talking about here is the kind of language that is used to communicate, where the interest is in getting the message across. If we expect readers to engage with our message, stick with it long enough to understand it, and process it efficiently so that they can use it in some way, then we must use language as a tool to clarify and explain, rather than as a decoration for our thoughts.

So if we want answers to questions, the questions must be worded so clearly that they fetch the answers we are looking for. If we want instructions to be followed, we need to construct those instructions in a way that there is no doubt in the readers’ mind about what has to be done. If we want an explanation to be understood and accepted, it must be crafted in such a way that only one meaning is possible – the one you intend.

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