The worst thing about reading research articles is the awful writing.
Every now and then, an exception pops up: a clear, short article made up of common words spelling out results in Plain English. But lots of research in my trade is replete – full! – of complicated words that get in the way of the points being made.
It’s not just academics at fault: things are bad in the corporate world and “among the legal fraternity”, too. And don’t get me started on those marketing and human resources blogs!
Some professionals seem to think that, if they use big words in their writing, they will seem smarter to readers.
Are they right?
“No,” says Professor Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA. Quite the opposite.
In one study, Oppenheimer did five experiments to figure out whether “big word writers” were seen as smarter than people who used short words. His results: readers thought “long word writers” were dumber than writers who said the same things in short words.
Shorter words are easier to understand than long ones. Studies show readers are more likely to think writers who use lean, tight, spare prose are honest, confident, and likable. This explains why fans adore the writing of famous short word users like:
despite their flaws.
So why do professionals use long words when shorter, better ones exist? Oppenheimer gives five reasons:
- “Everyone” expects long words in professional writing. (“This is what professional writing should sound like.”)
- “Experts” understand jargon and technical terms used in their field so don’t feel a need to simplify them. (Too bad for everyone else.)
- If writers don’t use big words, peers might judge them as uneducated or “unworthy” to be in their group. (Like teenagers desperate to fit in.)
- Writers are most likely to use big words when feeling insecure. (We use fancy, wishy-washy words when we are too scared to say what we mean.)
- Intelligent people tend to have large vocabularies, so people use big words to demonstrate they are smart. (Showing off for the sake of it.)
Not good enough! Oppenheimer found complex words neither disguise holes in arguments nor improve good arguments. So who are we fooling?
Professionals should write:
- for readers, not their egos; and
- to be understood by any educated adult – regardless of whether they belong to the same clique or expert group.
As Oppenheimer concluded:
“Write clearly and simply if you can, and you’ll be more likely to be thought of as intelligent.”
Principal source: Oppenheimer, D.M. (2006). Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilised Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly*. Applied Cognitive Psychology: 20: 139-156.
* A quick review of his recent publications list tells me Oppenheimer loves wordplay – especially bad puns. So, yes: his article’s title is a joke.
- 25 rules of effective writing from a plain English legend; and my nine all-time favourites
- Reading heroes – the Fantastic Mr Flesch – phonics warrior and plain English pioneer
- Alan Siegal – plain English – striving for simplicity
- Apologies to Mrs Dixon: taking notes by hand is more effective than by laptop
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