Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Rule of K.I.S.S.ing

Kissing to some means a strange ritual in which lips of two different people press together, creating suction, so that when the lips separate, it makes a loud noise. It is used as a symbol of love between partners.  Or some people will kiss the cheek as a sign of affection for someone.

Then there's the band KISS, a great rock group with some pretty freakish make-up (who are all really old men now).

But in writing, kissing takes on a different, though no less significant, meaning. K.I.S.S. stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. You could also use more vulgar language, but I (generally) don't cuss, so in my world it is "Stupid."

It used to be that the written word was often a forum in which a person could show off their intelligence. The less their audience understood, the smarter the author was. That has vastly shifted today.

Amazingly, writers actually want their readers to understand what they are saying. That's part of the reason for writing conferences -- to learn how to tell things in a way that others understand it (and connect with it, true). And not surprisingly, if a reader takes the time to read something, they actually want to understand it.

So what does this mean for you as a writer? K.I.S.S. When a shorter or more easily understood word works as well as a large one, use the smaller one. Make sure your sentences are easy to follow.

Now does this mean you cannot use sophisticated language or complex constructions? Well...no.  But just in moderation. Especially with the advent of e-readers, it's relatively easy for a person to look up a word they don't know, but if they are looking up every two words, the whole point of what you've written gets lost in a long litany of definitions. And if you want a long and complex sentence, make sure you fully understand the complexities and implications of various forms of punctuation to help guide your reader through your thought process. And for heaven's sake, surround it with simpler, shorter sentences. That's just good writing.

I remember learning several years ago that most writing for the general public (mass books, newspaper articles, etc.) is written on about the 8th-grade level. That means that the complexity of the sentences (primarily) and the vocabulary (sort of) can be understood by an eighth grader. Most often the test used is called the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test, which is a mathematical formula which uses the number of words per sentence and the number of syllables per word. Of course there are always exceptions, like The Wall Street Journal prides itself on being a more sophisticated newspaper, and technical journals are naturally going to be more difficult.

In one of my classes during the 2004 elections, a student analyzed the speeches of the political candidates. I cannot remember which candidate it was, but one of them started the political season with grade 13 speeches, and ended with grade 8 speeches. Obviously, he quickly learned that if he wanted his message to be understood, he needed to simplify it. For interesting facts about this year's speeches, visit here. As I don't want to get into any political debate here, I'll let you decide which statements of fact are good and which ones are bad. I personally think there are good and bad points on both sides of the party system.

But speaking of political speeches, my absolute favorite is the Non-Slanderous Political Smear Speech by Bill Garvin. Not only is this thoroughly entertaining (keep a dictionary nearby to get the full humor in the speech), but it effectively illustrates my argument for K.I.S.S.ing. Just as a small taste of the speech (you really ought to read it yourself): "His uncle was a flagrant heterosexual," and "And his own mother had to resign from a women's organization in her later years because she was an admitted sexagenarian."

On a related side note, did you know that you can actually check your readability level in Word and Outlook? I just discovered this, and it's kind of fun. In fact, I copied this post into Word and checked it; it's at an 8.7 grade level. Right about where I "should" be. Here are the full instructions to check your own writing, but basically, go in to the SpellChecker, then click on Options (Proofing Options) and click on the box for Readability Statistics. Then run SpellChecker, and when it is finished, it will pop up a dialog box with all your document info.

So if you want someone to understand what you are writing (and I think we all do), remember the Rule of K.I.S.S.ing.