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Readable but incomprehensible

When I received the first submission of this article, I scanned it. It read well, that is to say, there were no bumps or hiccups. So I congratulated the press agent and put it aside.

Two weeks later when I had the time to pay attention, that is, not packing, travelling, or unpacking, I read it again. This time I had a few questions.

Initially my line editor, the re-write guy, had also thought there was no problem with it. The second time we talked about it, we went through the entire article line by line. The more we digged into it, the more questions we had. This went on for an hour before we discovered that we had both fallen into the same trap. It was readable, but incomprehensible.

If we apply the same standards of readability and comprehensibility of newspaper articles to technical articles, we would be equally demanding. Why should technical articles be reserved for post graduate students? Why can't they also be easy reading like the kind of gossip columns we like to read to relax us?

Just because the subject is deep doesn't mean it has to be fearful.

So I scheduled a meeting with the author. Over a long cup of coffee, we tore the article apart. Sentence by sentence I grilled the young author. He had re-written the original white paper from four years ago as it was too technical for his clients. After two-and-a-half hours, he also became convinced that his version needed a major rewrite.

These days I find myself reading numerous technical articles without fully understanding what they are about. It's like a kind of sleeping pill that my doctorate thesis once served while I was still finetuning it. Are such incomprehensible monsters a deliberate strategy that consultants use? Readers read it, don't understand it, but conclude that it must be very important. So they engage the consultants who wrote it.

But for publishers, it's not enough to make it readable. It has to be understandable. And for me, even though my name doesn't appear on the article itself, I don't want to waste space publishing an article that will confuse my readers. Sadly many authors still measure their productivity and reputation by the number of articles they've published rather than the number of readers who understood them.

1 March 2002 Friday

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