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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Commentary: When did we begin to overcomplicate writing?

Writing should aim to be understood by as many people as possible — not sound “advanced”


By SARAH HAN — arts@theaggie.org


When looking back at books we read as children, the writing feels dramatically simple. The sentences are easily understandable by children and adults alike. On the contrary, research papers seem to be inflated with advanced vocabulary and technical jargon, some of which feel unnecessary. 

Indeed, the type of audience has to do with this difference: children’s books are tailored towards younger audiences who may have a limited vocabulary compared to adults. Adults, on the other hand, have a vast pool of knowledge that enables them to understand more complex pieces of writing. However, while some pieces require more nuanced vocabulary, some seem to employ this language for no other reason than sounding advanced.

Take “I ravenously scarfed down food with unmeasurable tenacity,” for example. This was one of the sentences I wrote for a paper in my class. A child, unless they can understand these words, probably cannot grasp the message right away. Admittedly, it takes some time for me to dissect all the words and figure out what this sentence means. 

A clearer way of sending my message across would be to write “I was really hungry.” Indeed, this sacrifices some of the imagery communicated in the previous version, but it succeeds in bringing the message across without confusion. 

Imagery, detailed language or another literary tool should not be the first priority when  writing, unless you know for sure that the audience will be able to fully understand it. Instead, communicating your message to as many people as possible should be the number one goal. Knowledge is a powerful tool, especially in today’s age of disinformation, so making sure that the largest number of people can grasp the meaning of your written communication is more important now than ever.  

Of course, this does not mean that you should always write in the simplest way; there are times when it’s preferred to write with hyper-descriptive words. In fact, I think “advanced” words are suitable when you are describing a setting or environment. For example, a journalism article that features an expert may require more technical language to extensively and saliently tell the reader what the topic is about. The point is more that I don’t think you should overcomplicate your writing for the sake of appearing “smarter.”

For example, “the dark, gloomy sky” can probably reach a wider audience than “the night was dark as obsidian.” For one, people might not know that “obsidian” is a dark and opaque volcanic rock. And while this description definitely intensifies the darkness of the sky, that message might not get across to most people, whereas “the dark, gloomy sky” might be more widely understood because all the words are more commonly known and understood.

I think a good rule of thumb when writing your essays, research papers or even lighthearted blogs is to ask yourself: could a five-year-old understand my writing? Or if that seems too elementary for the topic: could someone who knows nothing about the subject I am writing about grasp the message? These two questions can challenge you to let the message shine rather than the actual words. How do you think I did in sending my message across?


Written by: Sarah Han — arts@theaggie.org