Everyday Words: Keep It Simple

Otherwise known as “ditch the jargon already.”

I studied writing at Carnegie Mellon University (well, I first studied it in high school and had a teacher who was practically the grand master of Strunk and White, but I’ll get to that later). At CMU, we were indoctrinated into the Erwin Steinberg methodology of Plain Language. Today, that may seem like a simple concept, but I assure you, it wasn’t always that way.

Dr. Steinberg was something of a visionary. There was a time when most, if not all, technical writing was to be drafted in passive voice. It should sound authoritative. Certain. Unfriendly. Passive was the way to go! Professional and technical writing was horrifyingly boring, and that is just the way everyone seemed to like it.

Except they didn’t like it.

Imagine having to read this all day:

“The program will be completed by users only after the messages are received. Emails that have been sent will not be opened upon receipt.”

Are you asleep? I know I am. It’s just awful. And that isn’t even an example full of jargon. Wait for this one:

“Users should redirect their interface from the AWS blockchain system and consider a CMS that works with the UI. It can be discussed in scrum whether the vector graphics will be wired in or whether that is a sandbox item.”

Yeesh. I’m not even sure that makes sense, because I just tossed in all of the jargon that popped into my head. But I assure you, I’ve heard plenty of conversations using that word-spaghetti.

Jargon causes a problem no matter what, because using it runs the risk that your reader won’t understand it. Even seasoned readers don’t know all of the potential terms.

So Erwin Steinberg’s philosophy, the one that he impressed upon the hundreds of students he taught, and the philosophy of legends at Carnegie Mellon was this: write it in plain language.


Whether the text you are creating is something you understand quite well or it’s something you are translating for an SME (see what I did there?) – Subject Matter Expert, try to be sure that you simplify. This is not to say that every piece of writing needs to be watered-down. Of course not.

Consider the uses of jargon, and the need for explanation. Moreover, consider the origin. Journalist Allison Linn, writing for the Associated Press, discussed the emergence of the word “solution” in the tech industry. In common parlance, a solution is that which solves something. Easy enough, yes? But in technical jargon, a “solution” is merely a product. Tech companies release solutions.

Marketing took over and created jargon. Along came words like “enterprise,” “experience,” “agility,” “migration,” and a host of others. We now optimize things, we migrate data, and…gasp, we coined the portmanteau “blog” from Web and log, and you have this little project of mine right here.

The difficulty with jargon is that it is used by a subset of people, not the whole group of potential readers.

What Steinberg taught was that messaging, even technical documentation, needed to be accessible. Writers should identify their audiences and write to those. So of course, if the consumers of a given piece of documentation are solely, exclusively tech-familiar end users, and those users will understand the acronym SaaS, then by all means go ahead and toss it in. But by and large, if there is a snowball’s chance that any Tom, Dick, or Mary will get their eyes on the doc, then just write Software as a Service, and follow up with the acronym, willya?

There’s no need to dress up the text. And here’s where my high school English teacher comes in. He loved Strunk and White so much that his mantra was “Omit needless words.” That guy would legitimately write it on every piece of nonfiction prose any student submitted. He taught me the economy of words. He taught me a grave distaste for the word “nice,” demonstrating that it conveyed nothing of value.

Nothing, he said, was “nice.” It could be splendid, lovely, beautiful, tasty, delightful, mediocre, incredible, and a host of other words, but it could not be “nice.” I miss that guy.

The last word on this subject is: edit. Supposedly, (and I scoff at this, but I am pessimistic), Mozart wrote a symphony in a single draft. We are not Mozart. Cut the chaff. Weed out the unnecessary.

Especially if it is jargon.


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