Previously, when I came across an article in a newspaper or book, which I found difficult to read and understand, I had thought that it was me lacking the knowledge or the intelligence to grasp a particular subject. It would not have occurred to me to question the quality of writing by a renowned author. In addition to language barriers, I remember being intimidated by academic articles I studied at university. I would read the same paragraph again and again, feeling increasingly deflated.
This self-deprecating mist was lifted by a cognitive scientist and author Steven Pinker, who wrote an entire chapter on what causes incomprehensible prose to be produced. Pinker first explores an assumption that gibberish we encounter in academic articles, bureaucratic documents, instructions manuals and blogs posted by pseudo-intellectuals is there on purpose to bamboozle the audience. But could it be true that a gadget manual was written badly on purpose? Another explanation is that contributors to academic journals and serious newspapers feel obliged to use sophisticated jargon in order to come across as suitably impressive. But the language of Simon Kuper, Gillian Tett, Lucy Kellaway or Robert Shrimsley (my favourite Financial Times journalists) is not muddled by any jargon, and their writing is always superbly fluid, regardless of the subject of their articles.
Pinker explains the incomprehensive writing with the “curse of knowledge”: the difficulty of imagining what it is like for someone else not to operate at the same level of knowledge of a particular subject as you. About a year ago I taught my mum to use Skype, which was an extremely testing experience and a lesson in patience: I find Skype just as easy as another modern application, but my mum, who hadn’t used a computer before, was overwhelmed by the technology, entirely new to her. Similarly, a biology professor would struggle to write an article for a popular magazine because it is very difficult indeed to explain a scientific phenomenon to an audience without the benefit of decades of accumulated inside knowledge. When people are asked to explain something like they would to a child or an old granny, the challenge is not to come down to the level of unsophisticated audience, but to leave the curse of knowledge behind you.
Writing a contract or any other business document without stuffing in with conventional mambo-jumbo is not an easy thing to do. In fact, the curse of knowledge is so deeply ingrained within us that we are bound to be making mistakes all the time. Take your CV: how is it saved on your drive? My CV is saved as "CV Mar-2015”. This file name is not very useful to a recruiter who would no doubt prefer receiving a document named “CV - Jana Bakunina”, for example. The other day I struggled for ages to change the alarm clock sound on my new iPhone: the default tune was barely audible and not a nice thing to wake up to but the setting to change it was like a needle buried in hay.
How can you become a better writer? To start with, be ruthless with your industry jargon and make an effort to define any specific terms you are using. For example, the abbreviation “QE” has suddenly taken over British economic and financial pages, but when I first came across it, I had to look it up. (QE = quantitative easing, which refers to the type of monetary policy when the government pumps new money into an economy by buying financial assets (e.g. bonds) from financial institutions in order to stimulate the stagnating economy.) You have also got to be careful not to sound condescending. I once chatted to a friend who used a term I hadn’t come across before. When I asked her to explain the word to me, she said: “Don’t worry, it’s just industry jargon.”
Example are brilliant. Pinker says: “Like a drunk who is too impaired to realise that he is too impaired to drive, we do not notice the curse because the curse prevents us from noticing it.” Gillian Tett once compared tribalism in investment banking to the phenomenon she had observed in a Tajik village when she had studied anthropology. Both are excellent illustrations to help readers understand the new concepts well.
When in doubt, keep it simple. Consider “There is a significant positive correlation between measures of food intake and body mass index.” and “Overeating makes you fat.” Split long paragraphs into shorter ones, otherwise skim-readers will likely miss the point you are trying to make.
Read your work. Never send an email before reading it. Once you’ve written your report or your blog post, go for a walk, make yourself a cup of tea or watch James Corden on YouTube (I am addicted to The Late Show with James Corden YouTube channel). Then read your piece as if taking it in for the first time. A friend of mine, who is a writer, recommended me once to read my drafts aloud. It may not work in your favourite coffee joint, but I always follow her advice when I am writing at home.
Learn from the best. The best writers (the FT gang I mentioned above and Fraser Nelson, just to pimp some of the journalists I follow) are not only good at getting their points across, they also do that without patronising their audience. It’s a difficult balance to master but it’s the one you cannot afford to get wrong. Every time I write about economics on Life Tonic I am acutely aware of the readers with the PhD in that subject standing over my left shoulder and readers with no economics background, leaning over my right shoulder. It is impossible to please every reader with every blog article that comes out but it helps to have a compassionate imaginary reader on your mind.
I am forever aspiring to become a better writer myself, so the final piece of advice is to get regular feedback. Please leave me a comment under the blog or just send me an email. I really appreciate readers getting in touch and will definitely reply to every email I receive.
Why is it important to write well? There is nothing more frustrating than reading a badly written piece of work. On the contrary, “to a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures.” I am quoting Pinker again.