Need to convince somebody that optimising your readability is a no-brainer? Readability technology and its impact on search are new. But, the concept of plain language is centuries old. We’ll highlight some great quotes about readability throughout history.
When you wish to instruct, be brief; that men’s minds take in quickly what you say, learn its lesson, and retain it faithfully. Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind.
Cicero was considered one of Rome’s greatest speakers and writers. His words about teaching or public speaking here still apply today. If your language is didactic, make sure it gets to the point. Readability will make your writing more memorable.
Leonardo da Vinci
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
— Leonardo da Vinci
Who better to weigh in on this than the epitome of the Renaissance man? Although a genius, he saw the value of simplicity. Indeed, many people believe using complicated language conveys sophistication. But it is only a mask. You can achieve sophistication by conveying your message in the simplest, most succinct way.
Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise, you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
— C.S. Lewis
As the writer of the Narnia books, Lewis knew how to write wonderful books which children and adults can enjoy. Here, he teaches us a valuable lesson about wordiness. Sometimes we overuse big, weighty words as hyperbole. Then, when we actually need those words, they lose their impact.
Strunk and White
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell.
— William Strunk and E. B. White
Strunk and White wrote The Elements of Style, a holy grail for many writers. Here, they make an excellent point about plain language. They’re completely right - why would a machine have more parts than it needs? Similarly, excessive wordiness which, if removed, would not affect the meaning of a sentence, is ornamental. You can improve your style by cutting out this wordiness.
Gobbledygook may indicate a failure to think clearly, a contempt for one’s clients, or more probably a mixture of both. A system that can’t or won’t communicate is not a safe basis for a democracy.
— Michael Shanks, former chairman of the National Consumer Council (Great Britain)
As a more contemporary example, Shanks identifies here how crucial plain language is in any democracy. Great moments for readability in politics, such as Obama’s Plain Language Act, show that this is becoming more recognised. The National Consumer Council in the UK was a nonprofit organisation set up by the government which represented consumer interests. Shanks’ words here highlight the right of a consumer to understand what they’re consuming.
What we can learn
The authors of these quotes are all accomplished communicators. They see the valuable role simplicity plays in communicating clearly. We can take their advice and improve our own style by:
- Using simple words wherever possible
- Making our sentences concise
- Changing our mindset about complicated prose - and recognising where it has its place, and where it doesn’t
- Saving overstatements for when the word really applies
- Respecting our readers by being transparent
For actionable tips on how to do this, read our strategies for effective editing.