“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

In The Atlanticarticle “The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing“, the author Victoria Clayton critiques opaque writing that infects academic journals. She writes that the prose is “riddled with professional jargon and needlessly complex syntax… even someone with a Ph.D. can’t understand a fellow Ph.D.’s work unless he or she comes from the very same discipline.” This critique could easily be applied to legal writing, including some factums and judicial decisions.

Clayton explains that the main reason for opaque writing may not be so sinister. She refers to linguist Steven Pinker. Pinker is the author of The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. (My favourite book on writing.)

Pinker explains that the “curse of knowledge” is to blame for opaque writing. The years of study required to become a specialist works against people’s ability to take complex ideas and turn them into simple prose. “Translation: Experts find it really hard to be simple and straightforward when writing about their expertise.” Experts are not trained to identify what others do not know. People assume that the words they use are universally known. Therefore, the writerdoes not stop to think about what the readerdoes not know.

When it comes to good writing, Pinker’s advice is to edit, edit, edit. “Because the order in which ideas occur to a writer is seldom the same as the order that are best digested by a reader. And often, good writing requires a revising and rearranging the order of what you introduce so that the reader can easily follow it.”

In sum, to write simply it helps to think of what the audience does not know and to edit intensively.


(Views are my own and do not reflect the views of any organization. This article was originally posted on slaw.ca)