Surely, the KISS principle is one of the most useful engineering tools we have in our armory (KISS means Keep it Simple Stupid, for those who have forgotten). This should be applied to our writing so that it is simple and easy to understand.
But this principle is often forgotten. Perhaps, the overriding consideration we mistakenly have is to impress our audience with lots of gigantic words. I believe it is a privilege when someone is reading your communications. Therefore, you should ensure you respond appropriately to make it as easy as possible to understand what you are endeavoring to get across.
Most of the communications that engineering professionals write are to colleagues – in my opinion – and this results in the use of lots of technology gobbledygook. Obviously one doesn’t want to descend to childish levels and treat one’s audience like complete orangutans with overly simple English, but a balance is required.
This problem of poor written English applies to all groups of engineering professionals – from the handy(wo)man, electrician, fitter to the Chief Engineer. My wife (being an ex-English teacher) often rips my (what I thought was) well-written prose to shreds because it is too clumsy or badly structured. So I am not immune to accusations of poor writing skills.
Simple measures of poorly written English include the average number of words in a sentence and the average number of syllables. But these aren’t always appropriate.
As we all know - probably the profession which is the most guilty of jargon-riddled communications are lawyers. Lawyers retort that they need to write with ‘legalese’ to ensure that they are consistent, specific and guarantee a common interpretation by all parties.
Here are examples of words that are hard to understand and consideration should be given to more straightforward language: abatement, interlocutory, malfeasance, turpitude and the list goes on…
A few suggestions:
• Briefly consider who your audience is (e.g., immigrants/a bunch of PhDs or farmers)
• Think about adding graphics to break up the text and to enhance the understanding
• If you are looking to justify your assertions, some backing references are always good
• Choose simple, effective words
• Keep your sentences short
• Keep paragraphs to about twelve lines with about twelve words per line
• Text size of 11 to 12-point is easily readable.
But don’t ask me about sans-serif vs. serif fonts – no one seems to agree here.
Finally – I had to laugh ruefully – if you are putting up signage in a zone with visitors who don’t understand English very well – it is probably a good idea to use lots of graphics to get important concepts across (such as “Snakes are in this area”). Words may not always be understood.
Leonardo da Vinci reminds us: Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
Thanks to the inimitable Don Christiansen of the IEEE for his write-up on this vital topic.
Yours in engineering learning