The rands and sense of plain language: does it pay to write simply?

No matter what the purpose of your writing, be it an email reminder to a colleague, a letter to your neighbour asking her to scoop her dog’s poop or a government policy document, it always pays to write clearly.

And, of course, the Consumer Protection Act compels those communicating with consumers to do so in plain language. So, if you fall into this category, plain language is beyond a nice-to-have.

Nu? What are you waiting for?

So, if it pays to write clearly and we are legally entitled to demand it, why are we bombarded with so much ‘unplain’ writing? None of the possible reasons, the more insidious of which include laziness, showing off, insecurity and greed, stand up to scrutiny. Let’s take a closer look.


The irony is that it often takes longer to write in plain language because it involves careful thought and editing your own work. The great novelist, Mark Twain, explained this with customary wit:

“I am sorry this is such a long letter but I did not have the time to write a short one.”

While this may be true initially, once you get into the habit of writing clearly you will train yourself to think and write clearly in the first draft, reducing the need for hours of editing and rewriting.

Showing off

There are still many who believe writing simply hides their brilliance. And they feel a bursting need to make sure the rest of us know just how bright they are. Using big words, complex sentences and unfamiliar jargon does not make you seem smart. It makes you seem arrogant.

If you don’t believe me, watch this fun YouTube clip produced by TED Ed (@ted_ed).


While linked to the previous reason, I view this one more sympathetically. In many professions, (especially junior) employees feel the need to follow the lead of the ‘old dogs’, rejecting the road less travelled.

If this cap fits you, bear Robert Frost’s beautiful words in mind.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

from The Road not Taken 

Uncertainty, often coupled with self-doubt, is what compels lawyers to overwrite in a desperate attempt to cover all bases in defending their client’s rights. This merits a column of its own so enough for now.

Profit, she wrote (with apologies to Jessica Fletcher)

Greed, one of the seven deadly sins, drives people to commit unspeakable crimes. While even I don’t believe those guilty of complicated writing deserve a criminal record, it is nevertheless worthwhile to control your appetite.

But, even if greed is your motive, it pays to use plain language. If you write for a living, writing clearly improves your chances of a constant flow of work and a decent income (using ‘pay’ in its narrow sense).  In a more general sense, writing well benefits anyone who has to write as an incidental part of their life or work. (If you still need convincing, read the introduction to my plain language guide and my previous column on plain language in a multicultural society.)

If you are being paid by the word or page rather than for the time taken to produce the job, producing many words in a short space of time may appear tempting. The unfortunate by-product of this money-making method is convoluted writing. Being paid in this way can be a powerful incentive to spend as little time as possible editing (or paying someone else to edit) your writing, which will become very clear to your readers very quickly.

If you adopt this short-sighted approach, you may become a one-hit wonder, the demand for your services decreasing as your clients, or their clients, tire of wading through your waffle.

Bear in mind, too, Twain’s advice for those paid per word:

“I never write ‘metropolis’ for seven cents when I can write ‘city’ and get paid the same”.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who are paid an hourly rate (time sellers) whose written work should, in theory, be well-edited and succinct. And companies who spend money on ensuring their written communications are tightly edited and easily readable should reap the rewards.

(The business benefits of plain language communications are well-documented. Read these articles by plain language gurus Cheryl Stephens and Frances Gordon.)

Dilbert and the curse of the hourly rate

But the hourly rate has its downside, too. To show that I am not biased against lawyers, who are often accused of billing per hour yet producing work that is anything but accessible, here’s my favourite Dilbertcartoon.

It features a firm which hires a consultant at $400 per hour. When asked what process he would use to arrive at his conclusion, the consultant answers honestly, “A…very…slow one.”