Making writing readable

Four letters respond to March's cover article, 'Words and sorcery'.

Simon Oxenham and Jon Sutton (‘Words and sorcery’, March 2015) lucidly considered the causes and consequences of bad writing in psychology. They provided several quotations from psychologists who had eventually seen the light. But in their four-page article they only provided one paragraph telling writers what to do about it: ‘…take time over your writing: it matters. Don’t drain it of colour. Put yourself and others back into the worlds you write about. Above all consider your audience and try to write in smaller words for bigger circles.’

Such advice is not practical. We need something more basic, and some ways of enforcing it. First of all I recommend that writers measure the readability of their prose by applying a standard readability formula. Next, we need to set some targets to achieve.

In a recent study Barbic et al. (2015) calculated the readability of 504 articles in psychiatry journals and came up with mean Flesch scores of 5.66, 4.14 and 5.41 for the abstracts, introductions and methods sections. Earlier my colleagues and I (Hartley, Pennebaker & Fox, 2003) measured the readability of these same sections for articles in 80 educational psychology journals. We found mean scores of 18.1, 20.5 and 22.7 respectively.

Clearly both of these studies show that academic articles are horribly difficult to read. Indeed Flesch scores of 0–30 are labelled ‘very difficult’ on a scale that goes from 0–100. But readability scores can be improved if you try to do something about it (e.g. shorten words and sentences, use the present tense, write as you speak, etc.). So my first proposal is that authors should check the readability levels of their articles before they submit them, and try to improve them if the scores are low.

My other, more radical suggestion is that the editors of journals in psychology should reject articles that are submitted with scores of less than 30 on the Flesch scale, or ask for a rewrite. How about it?
James Hartley
Keele University


References
Barbic, S.P. et al. (2015). Readability assessment of psychiatry journals. European Science Editing, 41(1), 3–10.
Hartley, J., Pennebaker, J.W. & Fox C. (2003). Abstracts, introductions and discussions: How far do they differ in style? Scientometrics, 57(3), 389–398.

P.S. This letter has a Flesch readability score of 47.8 – not counting the references. Most word-processors provide Flesch scores under ‘Spelling and grammar’ or copying your text into https://readability-score.com/ takes about two minutes.

 

From a mature student perspective, reading ‘Words and sorcery’ in the March edition of The Psychologist was a breath of fresh air. Throughout almost the entirety of my degree I wondered if I was the only person questioning why academics sometimes explain straightforward concepts in such highly convoluted terms. At first I was convinced it was solely down to me ‘not understanding’ the concepts and methodology discussed, but as the years went by and I gained more knowledge (which is obviously still nowhere near complete) I started to realise that after reading a paper a few times a light bulb would go off (‘Ah, so that’s what they mean!’), subsequently jotting down some plain, easy to understand notes so I could quickly remind myself of the paper’s main points when needed.

For the inexperienced student, the abundance of articles using this ‘bad writing style’ results in an inflated inferiority complex; there is a strange assumption that qualifications equal an automatic understanding of these more ‘difficult’ papers, and it is a comfort to read that even highly successful and experienced academics get exasperated in a similar way to us lowly students. Of course I am not suggesting all academic papers succumb to this obscure writing style. I have found some to be a blessing – straight-to-the-point articles making my life, and possibly that of hundreds of students, so much easier.

Nor do I believe that this is a direct attempt to bamboozle readers (although perhaps there is an implicit aim to impress). I too, can identify with the explanation that academics are delivering what they believe is required of them and also believe this is something which begins at the undergraduate level. In terms of my own experience, I have had a lifelong passion for writing, but since studying psychology I have struggled with what is expected in the field… I admit on more than one occasion feeling as though I went through deleting all of the ‘colour’ out of my work in hopes of emulating the type of journal articles I had previously read. It is easy to see how this style perpetuates, when published journal articles – the highest available standard a student has access to – routinely fall into the trap of using a lot of big words to describe not that much at all.

Unfortunately, this writing style (again from my perspective) seems like such an ingrained approach in psychology I cannot see things changing anytime soon. I have an incredible amount of passion for psychological research, and luckily have been taught by some experienced academics who also convey this passion – how wonderful it would be for all students to see such passion reflected more readily in some of the more sterile journal articles… and how encouraging for the next generation of academics.
Angela Wearn
Northumbria University

 

Did the authors of the article ‘Words and sorcery’ intend to illustrate the sins of bad writing by exampling them?

Why is the article empty of what the authors commend as virtuous: humour, vivid and arresting phrases and Elizabeth Loftus style ‘stories’, except for one from Dorothy Bishop? Why are there no examples of what the authors of the article consider virtuous and sinful? In fact, the only illustrations are the four jargon words, where the words are excellent examples of what the authors claim to find sinful.
I    Instead of ‘The Curse of Knowledge has many guises: lack of theory of mind… [three lines later] illusory transparency’, why not ‘Consider what readers already know and do not know’?
I    Instead of 25 lines on functional fixity, why not ‘Think outside the box’?
I    Instead of 22 lines on the guru effect, why not ‘Students want to sound clever’?
I    Instead of 15 lines on effort justification, why not ‘Readers feel better if they have to suffer while labouring through an obscure article’?

Why not recommend us all to adopt what copywriters have been taught for generations: AIDA? That is, attract Attention, generate Interest, stimulate Desire and promote Action? So, instead of the obscure and undeveloped use of ‘sorcery’ in the title, the article could have attracted attention by ‘Can anyone here write English?’ followed by questions as above. Interest could have been generated by examples of the Beauties and the Beasties with anecdotes and rewrites as above. Desire could have been stimulated by examples that have generated admiration and recognition for the author. Action by inviting readers to select examples of bad writing and submit their rewrites. The reward? The Editor would select the best rewrites and publish them in The Psychologist.

Why not demonstrate that we understand people by attracting their attention, generating their interest stimulating their desire and promoting their action, so that they say ‘Whyever can’t every psychologist, including myself, write like that?’
Joshua Fox
Hailsham, East Sussex

 

The great scientists of the 19th century wrote for the educated public in style. Even in the 20th century, with so much specialist jargon to interpret, almost all the really original people wrote clearly. I never heard Anna Freud at Hampstead use any specialist words except ‘Oedipus complex’, although the language of her acolytes was as dense as could be. Oliver Zangwill’s spoken and printed lectures were identical, although his spoken lectures were never reading the written word.

I liked reading simple expositions as an undergraduate in psychopathology, and so I made my case study of a good-time girl of the slums as alive as possible. ‘This is not the Women’s Weekly!’ I was scolded, while the essay that received top marks was so thick with chunks of heavy phrases that nothing of its live subject could be found.

In our later careers, my reports were welcomed by teachers, and the prize-winner of our class wrote reports that impressed psychiatrists.
Valerie Yule
Mount Waverley, Victoria, Australia

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