Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.
So begins Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist. It was one of the first works of English literature I read in my early teens, and it has remained a favourite, but as this opening line suggests, it’s by no means an easy read.
What the Dickens?
Let’s have a look at what makes Dickens’ first line anything but simple:
- It’s long: 98 words, to be exact. According to research by the American Press Institute, on average readers understand more than 90 per cent when reading a 14-word sentence. For a 43-word sentence, comprehension falls to less than 10 per cent. So few readers are going to easily understand a 98-word sentence.
- It contains two lengthy parenthetical phrases: The sentence deviates twice, with ‘which for many reasons…’ and ‘on a day…’. The reader has to follow the core sentence (‘Among other public buildings in a certain town… there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born… the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.’) while taking on board the additional information offered: that the narrator is withholding the name of the town and the date.
- It’s wordy: ‘Prudent’ and ‘refrain’ will put some readers off straight away, and we have ‘the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter’ rather than the much simpler and clearer ‘Oliver’.
Of course, Dickens was writing in the 1830s, when language and style differed significantly, and he was writing a work of literature, so he had licence to be wordy and poetic and long-winded.
But very few writers today need to emulate Dickens’ style. When it comes to writing that needs to grab, inform, inspire and educate the reader (all writing, then, except perhaps literary fiction), simple is best.
Thumbs down to showing off
Good writing communicates information clearly and effectively. Writing isn’t about how many fancy, long words you can use in a 98-word sentence. It’s not about ensuring that your reader will need a dictionary to fathom your meaning. It’s definitely not about confusing, boring or exhausting the reader, or trying to appear clever.
When I write, I try to keep it simple. Just because I know a longer, weightier word for something, doesn’t mean I have to use it. I trust that the reader will know my worth as a writer without showing off that I can use words like abstruse (which is not only difficult to understand but actually means ‘difficult to understand’).
Even formal writing can be simple
Sometimes it’s appropriate to use formal language; for example, my terms and conditions are worded formally. But formal writing can still be simple and clear, something too many people forget.
I was once approached by a student who wanted me to rewrite his thesis to make it ‘more wordy’ (his words). His well-written, plain-English work was losing him marks from his university tutor because it wasn’t ‘complex enough’. I was rather glad I couldn’t take on the project (it would constitute plagiarism), because to deliberately complicate text seems ridiculous to me.
Opting for plain English
Working for another of my clients was a pleasure because they entirely embraced plain English. Some years ago, the UK exams regulation body (then called QCA; now Ofqual) sent me on a plain English training course, because they wanted me to ensure that the publications I copy-edited for them were easy to understand.
Since then, plain English has become mandatory for all GOV.UK content. ‘Don’t use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do,’ they tell writers, and they supply a list of words to avoid, many of which make me cringe. (Utilise? Who utilises? You use.)
Daring to simplify
Plenty of writers would benefit from applying a style sheet like the GOV.UK one. But doing so is a little… scary. What if the reader thinks I’m not impressive enough, they worry, without the I’m-very-clever writing style? In fact, what they need to worry about is whether the reader can actually understand and easily engage with their words.
Ask yourself: Could you, and should you, write more simply? Would your writing benefit from a copy-edit that ensures it’s concise and clear? If so, roll up your sleeves and start pruning.