3 min read

The Problem with Big Words

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We have all plowed through dense technical documentation or a presentation written by an expert, and come out the other side none the wiser. The writer’s information may be accurate, and their intelligence obvious, but if the reader does not understand the document, nothing has been communicated and the writer has failed.

The essence of technical writing is to take complex information and transform it into writing that can be understood by other people. Technical writing is not just about communicating about our specialties, it is about making sure that the people we are communicating with completely understand the information and are able to act on it.

While it may be expected that technical language will be understood by another expert in the field, most technical documentation is aimed at people either new to the subject or familiar with the subject in a completely different way than the writer is. A cardiologist does not deliver babies, and an obstetrician does not perform heart surgery, but they are both medical doctors. As medical doctors, some of the languages they use are the same, but other medical words are unknown outside their specific field, and therefore inaccessible.

Complicated language, the jargon of our trade, and unnecessarily complex sentences can create a barrier between the writer and the reader. We cannot guide our readers to understand our ideas if they cannot get past the first sentence. Choosing simpler language makes reading effortless, communicates a writer’s concepts more easily, and delivers greater clarity. Using simple language that helps an audience easily understand a concept, means that the document is doing its’ job of informing the reader.

Like a good book that we can’t put down, once a reader is engaged with what the writer is saying, the door to good communication is open and knowledge is being shared. Reader and learner backgrounds are diverse, and we usually don’t know the background of everyone who is reading our work. Effective communication means that by writing in simpler language more readers will be able to engage with the writing.

Even when we write for a group of experts in their field, their expertise will be as diverse as they are. If the writer is presenting to a group of 100 light bulb experts, it may seem obvious that the audience should all know how to screw in a lightbulb. The reality, however, maybe that 20 of them only use LEDs in their work, 30 use fluorescent tube lighting, 25 live in North America, and 25 live in Europe, which means all the lightbulbs will have different bases and electrical requirements.

Making technical writing easy to understand also promotes safety, by reducing the risk of the reader misunderstanding the text. Readers are more likely to follow manuals and instructions properly if they understand them. This is vital when hazards are identified in a document, as knowing what the hazards are is the first step in promoting effective safety measures. A clear understanding of a procedure leads to the reader actually following the steps the writer is directing them to do, which will reduce human error, and reduce workplace incidents and injuries.

As a bonus, using plain English also makes the writer seem more intelligent because what is written makes sense. No matter what our backgrounds are, using common language brings the reader and the writer together on the page as equals. Readers that understand a text identify the writer as a peer, and as a smart and effective communicator. It is not just the ability to understand information that makes one smart, but rather the ability to take what they know and communicate it to others so that they can acquire the same benefits of that knowledge.

Next time you are tempted to use a bigger word in place of a smaller one, remember that your doctor would not tell you that you are suffering with rhinopharyngitis. Regardless of who you are, even if they are talking to another doctor, the diagnosis will be the same, the doctor will simply tell you that you have the common cold.





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