Writing content for everyone

Lately, I’ve been trying to simplify my writing. Schools push us to increase our reading age. We learn more words and everybody expects us to use them. Our language has to be formal and using a thesaurus can get you bonus points. Teachers love to see you use new words, and because of this bad language is everywhere.

I don’t mean the language is bad because the spelling is wrong. I also don’t mean the language is bad because the grammar is wrong. Technically, a lot of the time it’s perfect English. The problem is that in real life, we don’t talk the same way we write things down. Like most people, I probably only speak around 3000 of the 170,000 words in modern English. I’ve actually never used the word ‘thus’ in a sentence, but I have written it down.

This week, I ordered some stickers which Royal Mail delivered. When I tried to track my delivery, I saw a great example the bad language I’m talking about. They have three statuses for my order: ‘received into our network’, ‘progressing through the network’ and ‘delivered’. At a glance, delivered is the only one that makes any sense.

Royal Mail's website showing the tracking information of the parcel. The information is displayed as a line with three marker points reading: Received into our network. Progressing through the network. And delivered.

I contacted Royal Mail and told them the language was difficult to understand. They linked me to a glossary of terms. This is a second page full of complicated words and an explanation of what each one means. A glossary of terms is a bad solution for using bad language. If you just use simple language in the first place you will save time for both you and your users.

Royal Mail told me ‘progressing through the network’ means my stickers had been processed and were on the way. I could have guessed that, so maybe I was being a bit of a troll, but I wanted to see if they would eventually simplify their language enough for me to understand. They did, but it took a lot of time and effort.

With writing, we sometimes try too hard to sound smart. This can make it difficult for a lot of people to read. Writing using simple language doesn’t leave out anybody with a high reading age, but writing using complex language can leave out those with a low reading age.

Hopefully, by simplifying my language I’ll become a better writer, and I’ll measure this by how many people can understand me rather than how many teachers I’ve impressed.

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Hi, I'm Craig, and I'm an Interaction Designer at the Department For Work and Pensions.

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