When less is most definitely more…

Keep it clear and simple! Image c/o Kaptain Kobold on Flickr

One of my pet hates is overly complex language.  The use of jargon really infuriates me.  I see it as the author’s way of creating an elite – those that understand what is being communicated distinct from those that do not.  It’s particularly a problem with academic writing – written, as it is, by academics for academics.  Of course, not all academics are guilty of this, but there is no denying that a fair few slip into it with noticeable ease.  Personally, I can do without it.  It’s not about ‘dumbing down’, it’s simply about communicating ideas in a way that everyone can understand, not just a closed circle of like-minded individuals.

Jargon has never really been my bag.

Now, I do not consider myself to be too thick to understand some of the complex terminology employed by some writers.  Having graduated in English Literature, I’d like to think that I have a fairly broad vocabulary and an ability to decipher at least some of the most impenetrable jargon.  Nonetheless, I do find it irritating in the extreme and it is something that I have always consciously tried to avoid.  Throughout school and university (on both my undergraduate and postgraduate courses) I have been fortunate to receive recognition for my clear structure and writing style.  I always remember on my undergrad being told by a lecturer that he liked the ‘old-fashioned’ way I analysed the Romantics – taking the poems apart piece by piece and explaining their meaning clearly and in uncomplicated language (I did love studying the Romantics it has to be said).  Jargon has never really been my bag.  If, when re-drafting an assignment, I come across a wordy passage, I re-write it to ensure it is clear and easy to follow.  If there is even a hint that it has become unnecessarily complex, it demands editing.

I think this determination stems from my admiration for two figures in particular.  I remember briefly covering Freud in my undergrad and remember our lecturer informing us that Freud used to like delivering his lectures in clear, simple language so that everyone could understand his complex ideas.  What was the point in trying to communicate his theories in a manner in which only a minority could understand them?  Surely it is better for as many people to understand his analytical works?  I was full of admiration for Freud’s methods (admittedly I may have been a bit of a Marxist at university so this would have made a big impression on me at the time!).

The other figure I greatly admire, and one that has influenced my political thought immensely is Noam Chomsky.  It is only within the past ten years that I have developed an obsession with reading his political works (I’ve not read any of his linguistic studies).  I find them fascinating both in the things they reveal (everyone should read at least one Chomsky in my view) but also in the way the ideas are communicated.  Chomsky avoids jargon and over complicated language, keeping his message simple and highly readable.  I find, without exaggeration, that I can sit and read one of his books from cover to cover in one sitting.  Of course, this may be because his works are mainly derived from his talks but, nonetheless, his is the standard that all factual writers should aspire to.

I always try to consider what a non-librarian would make of my writing.

Obviously, I could not possible put myself in the same category of either of these figures, but I always have their writing style in the back of mind, whether I am writing for this blog or an assignment for my course.  Particularly in terms of this blog, I always try to consider what a non-librarian, non-academic would make of my writing.  Would it engage them or leave them cold? Would it make them want to come back and read more, or will they dismiss it as just another librarian blog clogging up the internet? I aim, always, to ensure that the non-librarian/non-academic would engage with my blog.  I doubt I succeed, but that is the aim. That said, I don’t have many comments from non-librarians so maybe I do fail at this and need to try harder.

Furthermore, I do think that this is important in terms of how the profession is perceived.  Much is made of branding, reaching out to users, challenging the media narrative etc in order to re-position librarians and library workers in the eyes of the wider public.  For me, absolutely crucial to this is how we communicate on our blogs.  If the message is filled with jargon and corporate speak, there is a risk of ensuring that the only people who listen are other librarians or academics.  If there is a will for the public to have a clear understanding of the role of librarians then communications must be clear and effective*.

* It is at this point I realised I wrote something similar back in 2009 (it obviously annoys me more than I thought).  Apologies if you read that and thought this adds nothing.  I will try harder next time.


7 thoughts on “When less is most definitely more…

  1. Great blog post, I completely agree with you. If library & info professionals are going to break out of the echo chamber and engage with others then we need to start by making sure they understand what we are talking about.

    Can you recommend something by Chomsky for someone who hasn’t read anything by him before too please?

  2. Great article! It reminded me of a book I read a while ago entitled Death Sentence: the decay of public language. It was written by Don Watson, who was a former speechwriter forAustralian Prime Minister Paul Keating, and was about the increasing amount of management speak in academia and other organisations. I read Chomsky while at uni and loved his language 🙂

  3. I think it was Lauren Smith who quoted George Orwell’s famous Essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ in her blog recently. This prompted me the read the essay and here are 6 rules that Orwell urged the reader to follow:

    (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

    (ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.

    (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

    (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

    (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

    (vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

    You’ll find the essay all over the place, but one version is available here: http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

  4. This reminds me of a discussion I had once with a librarian about the use of language on swimming pool signage. The sign read “Please ensure that appropriate attire is worn when participating in swimming activities”. The librarian was very annoyed about this…the sign should just have read “You must wear a swimsuit or swimming trunks if you are going into the pool”. It makes more sense than “appropriate attire”! Sometimes we need to avoid the Thesaurus!

    And I’ve been told on more than one occasion that it’s a skill to be able to describe academic research in a language that EVERYONE can understand, not just those that are familiar with the topic.

    I agree that we should use language that makes sense to our target audience 🙂

    • I’ve always believed it is a greater skill to communicate complex ideas in simple language that everyone can understand. It seems to me to be easier to fall into the trap of using ‘academic speak’ all the time when you most of your conversation is with fellow academics. I certainly switch off when I see too much jargon and academic language. You’re not trying to get top marks, you are trying to engage in a conversation!!

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