Why it’s so hard to change how we write

Let’s start out with a quick question.

Look at the line on the left in the image below. Which one on the right do you think is most similar: A, B or C?

One vertical line next to a group of three others of varying lengths
It’s pretty obvious that the answer is C, right? Or so you’d think.

Yet three out of every four participants in a famous experiment chose either line A or line B.

Why did so many take leave of their senses? It was simply because the people around them gave the wrong answer too. (What they didn’t know was that the researchers had told the other people to lie.)

So what has this got to do with the way we write?

Despite ourselves

Most of us hate reading long, turgid documents. Yet when it comes to our own writing, we use the same verbose language as everyone else.

I’ve called this language Documentese. And once your eyes are opened, you see it everywhere.

So why do we still write ‘in spite of the fact that’ when ‘despite’ is better? Why is it usually ‘put forward a proposition’ and not just ‘propose’? Why ‘commence’ and not ‘start’?

In most organisations, it’s because writing clearly means choosing to be different. And being different can be very uncomfortable.

That discomfort has been with us since long before anyone had Microsoft Word. Back in the time of our ancient ancestors, being different could cost you your life.

It was doing what everyone else was doing – like avoiding predators or poisonous berries – that helped ensure their survival. It’s what enabled them to pass on their genes, ultimately to us.

Conforming costs too

Our brains have changed surprisingly little since then, and we’re still wired to follow the crowd.

Yet conforming can come at a huge cost, because it’s often only by doing something different that we make progress.

As the saying goes: if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

Brightly-coloured Emperor penguin surrounded by dull brown chicks

Standing out: sometimes it’s good to be different


Hidden potential

Almost two million companies use Word in the English-speaking world. Between them, their employees write millions of documents a day, often to communicate critical information.

Who knows how many important ideas within their pages are overlooked because they’re written in language that wears readers down so much that they simply stop reading?

Move forward

Unless we’re willing to do something different, neither we nor the organisations we work for will ever reach our true potential.

We all have a choice: conform and stand still, or change how we write and start moving forward. Which will you choose?

Make change easier

Ridding your organisation’s reports and proposals of Documentese has the power to drive progress like you wouldn’t believe. But being different can still be difficult.

If you get pushback, remember that your colleagues probably feel the same silent pressure to conform that you do. So go easy on them.

The first step is to make what’s obvious to you obvious to them too. The more people who recognise the problem, the more obvious the need to change will be.

Sharing this article on improving readability with them might make that easier. Or feel free to get in touch for more direct help.

If you want to do something different, you don’t have to do it alone. I’m about to launch a campaign on LinkedIn to change how we write at work. So feel free to connect with me there, stay updated and join the conversation. (Mention Writing Matters in your connection request and I’ll be sure to reply.)


Image credit: Jeremy Richards / Shutterstock

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