Jeremy Côté



When I was in CÉGEP, I had to take a couple of complementary courses to get my degree. Due to the way my schedule was structured, I basically had no choice but to join a social science class. I’ve written about this class before, but there’s one thing that I have to repeat: I am not a social scientist, which means my lack of interest in the subject did not help for the boredom I experienced.

In this class, I had to read many texts that were technical (in the social science realm). Depending on your view of brief, they were around twenty to thirty pages, which isn’t that long unless you dislike the subject such as myself. However, what I noticed about all of them (I’m pretty sure I am not exaggerating here) was that they exhibited symptoms of being overstuffed. What I mean by this is that the author would use roundabout ways of explaining a point. Instead of a brief sentence, colourful metaphors were used (as if this was a novel). They also broke one of Orwell’s rules for writing, which suggests that a writer should not use a complicated word when a simple one will do.

The worst part was that the complicated word tended to not even be a technical term. For example, if the writer wanted to describe the colour red, they wouldn’t just say “red”. Instead, a whole flurry of many-syllable words would be used. Sure, it made the writing colourful, but it did not make it easy to sort through.

I have a very simple test for finding out whether your writing is overstuffed or not. When you read a sentence, does it make sense right off? If so, you’re good to go. If not, does the sentence take multiple read-throughs because the concept is difficult (such as a subtle scientific point)? If so, then you may want to try to clarify, or you can accept that the concept is just a little difficult. If you answered “no” to that question, then your sentence is probably overstuffed.

I’m sure there are more exceptions and edge-cases here, but I would say that this test covers a lot of scenarios. If you can’t make sense of a sentence and there’s no real reason for it to not make sense, then you’ve done something wrong in your writing.

The reason this interests me scientifically is because transmitting new scientific and mathematical concepts can be very difficult. I’m thinking more in the case of students in secondary school and beyond, but this also happens when trying to understand what is happening on the frontier of an area of research. If the essay or paper is so overstuffed in its language that a person gets to the end of a paragraph and can’t figure out what they have just read, something has gone wrong. If an author is trying to make a scientific point, than this runs counter to their desires, because the point is lost in place of the language, which is never a good thing.

Therefore, I certainly don’t want a scientific paper to be as fun to read as a manual, but I don’t want it to be a literary novel either. There’s a balance to be struck, and overstuffing one’s writing with extra or more complicated words means the author does not have the reader in mind.

Take the needlessly complex language out, because showing how one knows these rare and obscure words does not help a reader receive the message that is desired.