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Should You “Dumb It Down”?

Yesterday while coaching a scientist on her writing, I suggested that she consider simplifying this wording: “The results of this trial may elucidate the most efficacious intervention strategies . . .”

Can you guess which words I thought were overly complex?

“Intervention strategies” is well-understood, common language in her scientific field, so I did not object to that phrase.

The words elucidate and efficacious have simpler substitutes: for elucidate, there are reveal, illuminate, explain, and clarify. For efficacious, there are effective, efficient, valuable, and other words, depending on the scientist’s meaning. Nevertheless, it’s possible that her audience would appreciate efficacious if it’s meaningful scientific jargon. That's why I asked her to consider simplifying–not just to make changes without thinking.

Is changing elucidate to reveal, and efficacious to effective “dumbing down” a piece of writing?

I say no. It's not dumbing down your writing. It's using smart communication techniques. 

Rather than “dumbing down,” I view those changes as efforts to communicate clearly with the widest range of people. And unless you are writing for a specific group of experts, you should write for a wide range of people, whether they are customers, employees, citizens, subscribers, students, parents, patients, or users.

To communicate clearly with the widest range of readers, follow the six recommendations below.

1. Use simple words.
State that your program will begin rather than commence. Include drawings rather than depictions. Stop utilizing; simply use.

2. Avoid unfamiliar though trendy words such as nascent and paradigm.
Instead, use a synonym that everyone recognizes. Synonyms for nascent, for example, are promising, hopeful, budding, emerging, and growing. Synonyms for paradigm are model, pattern, and framework. Pick the word that most clearly fits your meaning.

3. Use standard words rather than creative substitutes, especially in technical documents.
I once bought an external hard drive for my computer. Trying to follow the instructions, I came across the word forget where I expected to find delete. And instead of file, the instructions used snapshot. Rather than source, which I understand completely, the instructions referred to a volume. Each of these choices slowed me down and created doubts that I was using the drive correctly. If the word choices were an attempt to simplify, the attempt was not successful.

4. Avoid using newly minted words until their meaning is clear.
In a news article about landslides in California, an individual used the word mansionize. In the context, I believe she meant “to change the character of a neighborhood by building mansions in it.” But she may have meant “to renovate a home into a mansion.” Although mansionize may seem clear, it isn’t.

For the sake of clarity, use familiar expressions, even when using them means using more words.

5. Avoid "shoulding on" your readers.
When I ask writers whether their readers will understand their words, technical terms, or acronyms, sometimes the response is “Well, they should.” But whether they should or not is irrelevant. The question is “Will they?” Perhaps your readers should know you mean “Fault Tree Analysis,” but to them “FTA” may mean “Free Trade Agreement.” Spell out terms rather than creating work (or confusion) for readers.

6. Break your long sentences into short, crisp ones.
Your favorite novelist in college may have written a sentence a whole page long, but his or her purpose was not to inform. It may have been to enlighten or provoke the reader, to create a marvelous new world, or to push the limits of language. In contrast, your purpose is to communicate clearly with your readers. Keep it simple.

For easy understanding, sentences should average no more than 15 words. Sentences in this article average 12 words.


Do you have examples or ideas on writing to meet a range of readers' needs? Please share them. 


You may be interested in these blog posts on the related topic of jargon:  

Take Control of Your Jargon

Jargon–To Use or Not to Use?

Today I Left Out the Jargon

When Your COB Is My EOD

Have You Been Triaged Yet?


Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

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