Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Don't dumb down

My friend Bill Pugh wrote me after my last post.

From: Bill
To: Matt

One persons perspective, writing down to lower grade levels does not improve communication. Following the advice of Strunk and White does.

  • Clear
  • Concise
  • To the point
  • Correct

It is not the grade level of the material it is the quality of the material that maters!

 -- Bill

From: Matt
To: Bill

I love Strunk and White and try to reread it every year. I always have used copies sitting around because I give them away like candy. And I think E.B. and the Professor would have no problem with readability statistics. 

I think of it like this: Clear, Concise and To the point are big Xs; readability statistics are the little Ys. Even S&W take that approach. "Principle 17: Omit needless words." "Style Approach 6: Do not overwrite." "Style Approach 14: Avoid fancy words." Readability is a metric to help measure how well you're doing in the quest for Clear, Concise and To the point. You have to do many, many other things as well. 

I'd like to do a post about this. Since you didn't post this on the blog, do you mind if I use your e-mail in a post?

 Thanks for the feedback!

- Matt

From: Bill Pugh
To: Matt

Happy to have you use my email. 

I do not agree that readability stats reflect quality of material. I also realize that I have a larger goal, that is to raise the education standards in the US. By constantly writing down we are not helping society, we are in-effect saying that no mater how little you educate yourself we can write to or below your level.  That is bad for society. We need to increase education levels, good writing should challenge the mind not stoop to the lowest common denominator.

Here is my favorite line in S&W:

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

I wonder what its readability level is (my copy of word does not have the tool) - I did notice the MS highlighted a phrase as grammatically incorrect... interesting. 

-- Bill

From: Matt
To: Bill Pugh

I don't think we're far apart. It's just a tool that helps you break up run-on sentences, replace three words with one and rethink polysyllables. I can only speak from experience -- it makes me more concise. 

The quote from Strunk & White is grade level is 11.4; readability is just under 50. Your own writing is at 9.7 and 54.9. Do as you say, or do as you do? 

It is also absolutely true that some sections of a piece of writing may be at a high level, and some at a lower one. Please remember that I'm talking about internal communications here, not fiction or essays. How does a communicator make sure that the message can be -- at least -- understood by the many different people in a company that will read it? At RRD, I owed it to the folks on the shop floor to write in a way that was easy to understand. It is not dumbing down. It's disciplined writing. 

- Matt

From: Bill Pugh
To: Matt

Likely not. 

I did miss the key point to all communication "to be understood".  Interesting that with no editing etc I write at 9.7... I wonder if after editing my stuff goes up or down.

Have a great weekend.

-- Bill


1 comment:

Jocuri said...

Great post